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STAGE DIRECTIONS

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L. Trey Wilson's new play provides an incisive glimpse at conflicts that arise when sensitive artists collaborate on a project—the old bugaboo of creative differences. Yet that's merely the tip of the iceberg. Wilson's multilayered story explores many facets of prejudice and insecurity, as well as the challenges of self-realization, and it raises intriguing questions about how our life informs our art and vice versa. That sounds like a lot to chew on, but the remarkable thing about director Dan Bonnell's lucid premiere production is how smoothly it all plays out, providing crisp humor and profound moments of serious reflection. His stark environmental staging perfectly suits a play depicting a rehearsal, driving Wilson's resonant themes home with sharp immediacy.

The basic setup is simple. Some African American theatre artists are preparing an edgy new play about two men in a park struggling to bring their dormant carnal attraction to the surface. When the script calls for the actors to spontaneously kiss following an embrace, the straight actor (Marc Ewing) has trouble following through, much to the disgust of the gay actor (Wilson), who feels that anything less than a real mouth-to-mouth mingling would be an artistic cop-out. When it becomes clear that Rod is uncomfortable with more in his role than just that one moment, the entire production seems in jeopardy. The director (William Christian) and the playwright (Kareem Ferguson) enter the melee as issues of bigotry and homophobia turn the rehearsal into a firestorm.

All performances are exemplary, skillfully sidestepping the verbosity that could have resulted from the script's fast-flying invective and density of ideas. There are thankfully no villains or heroes in Wilson's band of headstrong artistes, who seem as committed to the integrity of their art as they are blind to their own hang-ups. With his sardonic quips, Wilson provides the funniest moments, playing a gay man comfortable in his own skin—perhaps a bit too comfortable, as he forgets that there is life beyond shrill gay activism. As the uptight thespian who should never have accepted his role, Ewing also elicits raucous laughs with his rationalizations and unintentional put-downs. Christian is superb as the reluctant referee, fighting against the odds to get the show on the road. In what turns out to be the pivotal role, Ferguson's character takes the biggest journey; he rises to the occasion, with a credible character transition best kept a surprise. Chuma Hunter Gault is effective in a brief but important climactic scene. This sublimely thought-provoking effort is the finest amid this producing group's recent string of challenging premiere works.

"Stage Directions," presented by Ensemble Studio Theatre—The L.A. Project at [Inside] the Ford, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. Jan. 24-Feb. 28. $18-20. (323) 461-3673.

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