Based on fact and featuring amazingly absurd transcripts from the trial of William Kemmler (Ariel Goldberg), the first man to be put to death by electrocution, in 1890, Michael Vukadinovich's darkly skewed comedy is more about greed and lust for personal power than about the battle over capital punishment. It focuses on the rivalry between Thomas Edison (Matt Weedman) and George Westinghouse (Mike Kindle), who lock horns over the use of direct current, which Edison backed wholeheartedly, and Nikola Tesla's alternating current, which Westinghouse considered the less dangerous choice and would keep his own name from forevermore being linked to the invention of the electric chair, something he believed was the goal of Edison's endorsement.
Vukadinovich tells his tale through two itinerant hobos, Trog and Clay (Isaac Wade and Emma Fassler), enlisted to trap stray dogs at a quarter apiece for Edison, who uses them in his experiments like a canine fish fry. Wade and Fassler shine brightly as these downtrodden souls, bringing a delightfully woebegone modern-day Laurel and Hardy—or is it George and Gracie?—sensibility to Vukadinovich's eclectic mix of characters. Goldberg, with a creepy smile almost surpassing Hannibal Lecter's glee over fava beans, is a standout as poor dumb Kemmler, who at least in this version murdered his common-law wife at the bidding of Westinghouse's straying spouse, Margerite (an excellent Paige White), who was acting under the influence of her other lover, one Mr. Edison.
Sadly, as good as all these components are, this worthy new play and the gifted company presenting it are severely hampered by Gary Gardner's uninspired and pedestrian directorial choices. If this company continues its stated quest to produce edgy, unconventional projects, what these eager young people need in this, their sponge-soaking era of creative birthing, is to next time hire a more visionary and imaginative director to bring a spark of creativity to match their talents.
Presented by Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble at the Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 Second St., Santa Monica. April 22–May 15. Thu.–Sat., 8 p.m. (800) 595-4849. www.latensemble.com.