Engagement

Writer-director Allen Barton takes clever, snarky aim at our electronically connected society, as well as our sexual folkways, seen through the prism of two oddly matched couples. Vaguely liberal painter Nicole (Vanessa Celso) has fallen for commitment-phobic conservative Republican Mark (David Crane), even if on their one-year anniversary he took her out to dinner at Baja Fresh. He tries to mollify her by taking her to a French restaurant of her choosing but then spoils it by denouncing all things French, abusing the diligent French waiter (Christopher Hoffman), and proclaiming his neocon views. Worst of all, immediately after proposing to her, he vomits. Nicole's wry, disenchanted roommate, Rachel (Retta Sirleaf), advises her to dump him, which Nicole eventually does but only after giving birth to their daughter, Becca, whom both parents adore.

Meanwhile, when Mark's manic, frustrated-romantic roommate (Jeremy Radin) accidentally encounters Rachel, they have a violent sparring match—and tumble into bed. We see Mark with his high-handed, sophisticated mother (Brynn Thayer) and hear about his violent loathing for all electronic media, which eliminate face-to-face interaction, and his indignation at being brutally unfriended on MySpace. And finally we find him babysitting Becca while Nicole goes out with other men.

Barton's characters are hilariously, terrifyingly overarticulate. They indulge in violent harangues, wrathful riffs, blazing denunciations, and flamboyant self-dramatizations. Yet their endless words, like the omnipresent electronic media, seem to be only a barrier to communication. They really connect only when they run out of things to say.

Barton draws passionate performances from his actors, each contributing finely layered performances. Celso's Nicole clearly cares about Mark, even if she finds his smug, pugnacious conservatism unbearable. Crane somehow makes us care about Mark, no matter how obnoxious he is. Sirleaf and Radin deliver funny, tour de force performances as unlikely lovers. Thayer's stylish, detached mother gives us strong hints as to why Mark turned out as he did. And Hoffman's impeccable French waiter wins more sympathy than his tiny role would seem to allow. (Most roles are double-cast.)

Presented by the Katselas Theatre Company at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, 254 S. Robertson Blvd., Beverly Hills. July 24–Aug. 22. Fri.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. (310) 358-9936. www.katselastheatre.org.