SENSITIVE SKIN

at the Elephant Theatre

In Shem Bitterman's darkly comic meditation on jealousy and deceit, blood is thinner than water and nothing is more porous than the shifting waters of loyalty. In this provocative tale of the used and the users, Bitterman defies one's fears that his edgy piece might slip into garden-variety melodrama. The violence remains emotional rather than physical, more painful in the long run. Though the production was still attempting to hit its rhythmic stride on opening weekend, director David Fofi elicits smartly nuanced performances and gives Bitterman's script a thoughtful premiere rendition.

Set in New York, 1999–2005, the play examines the obsessively competitive relationship between industrious medical intern Nick (Warren Kole) and his constantly floundering brother, Todd (Paul Wesley). Nick takes perverse glee in pointing out the failures of his ne'er-do-well sibling, a druggie who drifts from one ill-advised get-rich-quick scheme to the next. The siblings meet and fall for the sexy waif Eden (Kate Ascott-Evans), a stripper on the verge of achieving success with her photographs of nude body parts. Odd woman out is Eden's spunky best friend, Julia (Marguerite Moreau), also a stripper, who caters to Eden's wishes and needs, longing for a bond beyond the platonic. The triangular relationship among the siblings and Eden sets in motion a series of power struggles and reversals, with Julia as the wildcard.

The best work in the strong ensemble comes from Wesley. There are no heroes in this story of human frailties, but Wesley's resourceful exploration of the complexities of this lost soul yields the production's most moving moments. Kole nails his character's superficial friendliness and masked ruthlessness, as the nice-guy demeanor increasingly conveys a steel coldness. Ascott-Evans is frequently fascinating as a likewise manipulative character, though in certain scenes, her reactions to turbulent circumstances seem too subdued. Moreau offers fine support, nicely building upon the flirtatious tart we initially meet, deftly conveying Julia's vulnerabilities.

Joel Daavid's smart op-art set, Kimberly Negrete's lighting, the projected photography of Bitterman and Chris Redman, and Enis Rotthoff's moody music enhance the chic milieu envisioned in Bitterman's compelling, noir-styled morality play.

Presented by Elephant Stageworks at the Elephant Theatre, 6422 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m. May 19-Jun. 24. (323) 960-4410.

Reviewed by Les Spindle