If Valery Belyakovich meant for his audience to experience the agony and despair of the characters we see onstage here, he may have succeeded. Over the course of this three-hour production, our distress is limitless. Gorky's play The Lower Depths is here "written" and directed by Belyakovich, adapted by Lee Hubbard and Pasha D. Lychnikoff, presumably translated by one of them. We are left to piece together its meaning.
In a "shelter"--a dark, smoky, barren place--a group of oppressed people faces love and death and suffering and religious inspiration. No problem: These are subjects beloved of Russian literature. But something happened between pen and stage. It could be the fog machine, which blasts to tell us we're in a dusty place, then keeps burping inopportunely to remind us that theatrical gimmickry is never a replacement for imagination. It could be the all-white costuming of these poor souls, except for the slutty clear-plastic high-heeled pumps of one woman and the costly watch of a man--seeming to set this universal, otherworldly piece in the heart of L.A.
Or it could very well be the direction. Program notes indicate that the original play was staged, in 1902, by Stanislavksy. With a few momentary exceptions here, however, we see not a touch of him. Despite the presence of several of L.A.'s best actors, most of the performances are shallow, stilted, general. When the actors are to give important monologues, they come downstage right, where a warm spotlight signals our attention. The stride to the corner can be counted on; the lighting of the space was less reliable on opening weekend. Blocking was obviously well-rehearsed and consists of marches along platforms and synchronized rolls across them. Oh, had the lines been as well-rehearsed, there would not have been an epidemic of fumbled and interrupted dialogue.
In too-rare moments the actors seem to either deliberately ignore their direction or intuitively rise above it. Timothy V. Murphy reveals an inner life to his whistle-blowing peacekeeper character; John Marzilli ultimately lofts above the blatantly overacting actor he plays; Imelda Corcoran brings an ethereal urgency to her angelic role. But even the skills of the 19-actor cast can't help shape this sodden, impenetrable mess.
Presented by Black Square Productions at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Jan. 28-Mar. 5. (310) 477-2055.