at the Bootleg Theater

Ethan Strong (Ben Messmer) is a self-help guru on a lecture tour. He's an unlikely choice for the job because, as he explains, he was a wild boy, kept in a cage in the basement for eight years by his psychotic mother. As Eva Anderson's strange, cryptic, and hypnotic play begins, he's midlecture, but he's falling apart before our eyes. Saddled with the job of holding him together is Elliott (Trevor Peterson), his assistant, road manager, and general factotum. And Elliott is afflicted with a wobbly ego, massive insecurities, and a desperate dependence on his precious notebook, which contains all the info, phone numbers, and travel itineraries for the tour.

When Elliott picks up a girl, Tess (Natalie Urquhart), and takes her back to his motel room for an amorous tryst, she steals his notebook, reducing him to hysteria. It's some time before we learn that she's homeless and traveling round the country, searching for her lost sister, Lotte (Lucy Griffin). Lotte is a charming but semidemented creature, feckless and impulsive, who never removes her red gloves, and Tess suspects there's a connection between Lotte's itinerary and Ethan's.

It's a tale of four damaged people, lonely and unable to connect with everyday reality. Tess is intent on using Elliott for her own ruthless purposes, but his vulnerability touches her in spite of herself. Anderson's play is eccentrically constructed, and there are gaps in its logic, but director Adrian A. Cruz seems to have an affinity for it and weaves it into a compelling whole. Messmer makes Ethan's plight painfully real, and Peterson wields potent charm. Urquhart captures the need beneath Tess' laconic, hardboiled exterior, and Griffin finds the thread of reality in Lotte's madness.

Jason Adams' skewed set admirably captures the play's out-of-kilter flavor, and Brandon Baruch's lighting and Ann Closs-Farley's costumes are spot on, while John Zalewski's percussive sound design reflects the prevailing madness.

Presented by Calamity Theatre with and at the Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., L.A. Mon.-Wed. 8:30 p.m. Oct. 8-Nov. 14. (213) 389-3856. www.bootlegtheater.com.

Reviewed by Neal Weaver