The narrator of Steve Yockey’s “Wolves,” at Celebration Theatre, begins with the traditional “Once upon a time” but soon adds a warning not to expect a pretty play. What follows in the ensuing 70 minutes of darkly malevolent themes and—literally—a bucket full of stage blood could not be blacker. Director Michael Matthews and his game cast intently embrace the darkness, but Yockey’s newest work doesn’t seem ready to be honored with such a ferociously ardent effort to make it whole.
Ben and Jack (Nathan Mohebbi and Matt Magnusson) are ex-lovers who share a “very small apartment in a very large city.” There are obviously some lingering feelings on Ben’s part as he desperately tries to keep Jack from going out to troll for a little companionship. Ben does his best to keep Jack home, away from the nighttime dangers of “the forest” lurking outside, but Jack is determined to loosen the grip. When he returns with a stranger (Andrew Crabtree) to share a bit of anonymous passion, it’s clearly not just to make the Beast With Two Backs; it’s to flaunt his independence in Ben’s face. He and the trick he dubs Wolf are soon rolling around on the couch but not until after it’s established that Jack wants a little rough treatment to add to his pleasure.
There are some wonderfully inventive visual effects utilized, made more conceptionally intangible by Katherine Skelton as the narrator, a soft-spoken, omniscient figure who occasionally freezes the proceedings with a clap of her hands to further the story line. This is a smartly abstract device with much potential, but her presence also makes it easy for the play’s grislier aspects to be described rather than performed, leaving major action to happen offstage or stuck in one of those frozen tableaux.
The cast is quite good, especially Crabtree, who has a presence and a smoothly seamless comic timing that make his the most interesting and committed performance. According to Matthews’ program notes, “Wolves” is a play about the clash of love and need, but it’s more clearly about the need, never really encompassing much of the love. The actors work diligently to combat this weakness, but the rampant flaws and cliffhanger ending never give them anything concrete enough to make their characters more than tortured and one-dimensional.
Yockey is a fascinatingly poetic playwright known for pushing boundaries, something that made the debut of “Wolves” so eagerly anticipated. Unfortunately, not much new is offered here. Though promising, the script is in need of major rewrites to flesh out its meaning. Despite a bang-up effort by the imaginative Matthews and his team, “Wolves” never quite makes it from low growl to full-on howl. “You shouldn’t go looking for a moral,” Skelton’s narrator tells the audience early in the action, but a story far less safely unsafe and with a more satisfying ending would have been nice.
Presented by and at Celebration Theatre, 7051 Santa Monica Blvd., L.A. March 8–May 5. (323) 957-1884 or www.celebrationtheatre.com. Casting by Jami Rudofsky.
Critic’s Score: C+