Most of the ingredients included in works by poet-playwright Dael Orlandersmith ("Beauty's Daughter," "Stoop Stories," "The Gimmick") are ugly, uncomfortable, raw examinations of the various forms of external and internal abuse. But despite Orlandersmith's knack for displaying pain, this world-premiere three-hander suffers from a personality crisis: It's too redundant and derivative to be a compelling piece of beat poetry, and it lacks the character development and emotional variance needed to be a compelling narrative. The impressive cast, directed smartly by Gordon Edelstein, conveys Orlandersmith's 65-minute foray into despair. But without proper context or original imagery, "Bones" quickly dissolves into a monotone rant, set to the frequently atonal jazz duo of saxophonist Doug Webb and bassist-vocalist Nedra Wheeler.
Mind games is the umbrella theme, played out in a dilapidated Newark, N.J., hotel room (Takeshi Kata's set, complete with carpet stains, is wonderfully disgusting), between estranged 30-year-old twins Leah (Tessa Auberjonois) and Steven (Tory Kittles) and their alcoholic mother, Claire (Khandi Alexander). Internal monologues are interspersed with confrontational exchanges and flashback sequences that involve an absent father, as the brother and sister search for the truth about exactly who instigated sexual and physical abuse. Everyone's memories conflict, the only consensus being that terrible things happened and everyone has been left permanently scarred.
As Claire, Alexander believably dives headfirst into a glass of Scotch whiskey and remains there. Her words are slurred, her confident strut is wobbly, and her drunken defiance barely masks tears of regret. Kittles oozes anger as Steven, who has inherited his father's rage and tries to control it through long hours of work and exercise. And Auberjonois defines Leah as the stereotypically lost artist, trying to dull her pain through vodka and sex. Edelstein, with assistance from Lap Chi Chu's crisp lighting design, transitions smoothly from one character's perspective to the other.
But there's no payoff, because the story never fluctuates from its singular emotional note. Orlandersmith throws the viewer into the middle of conflict between one-dimensional characters and remains there. "Bones" feels as though it's the
climax to a family drama, but
without buildup or exposition, it's emotionally flat.
Presented by Center Theatre Group at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. July 31–Aug. 8. Tue.–Wed., Fri., and Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6:30 p.m.(Also Sun., 1 p.m., Aug. 8.) (213) 638-2772. www.centertheatregroup.com.