In the Decemberists’s melancholy ode “Los Angeles”, the band croons, “How I abhor this place/Its sweet and bitter taste/Has left me wretched, retching on all fours/Los Angeles, I’m yours.” That’s certainly the effect the city by the sea has on Audrey (Katherine Waterston), the doomed heroine of Julian Sheppard’s Los Angeles. Of course, the prodigious amounts of speed Audrey consumes somewhat explains all that wretched retching.
After an ambitious boyfriend uproots her from Seattle (“Listen, we’ll get a place in Santa Monica, I hear it’s really nice, the most normal”), Audrey finds herself lost amid the greed and glister of Tinseltown. Beset by addictions, enablers, and a live band stalking her across the stage, Audrey totters to her ruin in a slip dress and high heels. The plays’ narrative arc couldn’t be simpler, but Sheppard enlivens the proceedings with finely observed dialogue and scenes that speed from the harrowing to the comic and back again.
While 10 other characters flit around her, Waterston never leaves the stage. The script sets her a difficult task, playing a desperately self-involved character who everyone wants to involve themselves with. More than one man tells her that they want to get to know the real Audrey. Says one swain, “It’s like there’s you, and there’s someone else under.” Perhaps Audrey feels this, too, insisting, “I wanna rip my skin off with tweezers.” Waterston, a distractingly attractive gamine, gives a jagged performance. At times her vocal skills don’t sustain her or she strains too hard for an effect or attempts a distracting mannerism, but she has a capacity of emotional access and candor that never renders her less than absorbing.
Director Adam Rapp colors the proceedings with menace and shade, allowing each actor (most of them non-equity thesps from the Flea’s resident company) the chance to murkily shine. His use of an onstage band feels profligate, though in Downtown theater, profligacy’s a fairly welcome sin. The female singer intones lyrics by Sheppard—”lists of whispers” and “brand new souls”—that lack the prick and rasp of his stage dialogue. “Brand new souls” are well and good, but a brand new soundtrack might be more to the point.