“Angels” begins promisingly.
A tableau of partiers frozen in red light … a white-winged angel dancing drunkenly around them … an interlude of Los Angeles radio DJ banter as the lights go up on a funny exchange between a pair named Calvin and Helen.
It’s a charmingly surreal opening, and squarely within the realm of what might be expected from a play whose self-description talks of “the intersection between fantasy and reality.” It’s a shame, too, because the angel conceit turns out to be relatively minor and impossibly stupid. Which brings us to the rest of the play.
Calvin is an LA native. Helen is from Spartanburg, South Carolina. They’ve met at Santa Monica College pre-orientation, and he’s enticed her to dip into his lifestyle of relentless oceanside partying before summer is over. One by one, his private-school friends wake up, and impart bits of information. For example, they like summer. (I know because one of them yelled “God bless summer!” to cheers of affirmation.) Furthermore, they all start college tomorrow. (I learned that when one of them said, “We all start college tomorrow.”)
Shaun, Harry, BB, and Pierce — Calvin’s crew — are very hungover, as BB reveals by exclaiming, “Holy worst hangover ever!” Pierce is the de facto chieftain: He wakes with his head in a traffic cone, from which he extracts a bag of weed before climbing a picnic table and unleashing a torrent of stoner wisecracks and wisdom. It’s 10 a.m., and everyone opens a beer. The party is back on!
Helen is our avatar as she quizzes the Californians on the logistics of their beach-bum lifestyle and gawks in horror at each reply. She wears a perturbed look during the entire play, but then, most of the actors’ faces seem stuck in one expression.
Draped in an uninspired mixture of neon, Vans, Hawaiian shirts, floral print, plaid cargo pants, aviators, and flat brim hats, our protagonists (we eventually learn) are entertainment executives’ kids who have uniformly decided to cling to LA for another four years — except for Ivy League Harry. Predictably, they employ the word “like,” to, like, not-so-great effect. Less predictably, they use phrases like “Jesus tap dancing Christ” and say “boink” to designate the carnal act.
When it comes time to clarify Pierce’s hazy backstory, a lifeguard appears onstage to divert the slacker-king while the friends solemnly recount the legend to Helen. Pierce, actually two years ahead of the others, was a star football player with national-league potential who mysteriously quit the sport at the peak of his success. A tangle of subplots explains his current status: a charismatic, perennially inebriated beach-dweller lionized by a rotating gang of high schoolers. Otis Blum ’15, who wrote the play, is competent as Pierce but commands no gravitas.
The storyline soon threatens to break down into clichés — first up, sex! BB and Harry flirt hard in a stereotypically hot-girl-and-nerd-finally-getting-together type of way. His impending departure for The Ivy League dooms their romance, but she spends the interim passionately asking questions like “Do you think you’ll ever smoke weed?”
Helen, for her part, abandons Calvin for a fling with Pierce but has to compete with ex-girlfriend Emily, who, whatever her reasons for intermittently popping up at Pierce’s hobo dominion, is a bright spot of subtle acting.
Next up, violence! Somewhere in the two-and-a-half-hour play, we are made privy to the distressing disappearance of 14-year-old Stella Mallick from last night’s rager. Her older brother thinks Pierce is guilty, and so they fight. (Let’s all try to forget the two men staggering about, yelling “Stella! Stella! I want my baby down here”).
The band of partiers is likeable and energetic. That much should be said. But BB’s manic laughter, Harry’s choice to downplay all his important lines, the general bungling of key pieces of dialogue, and the unpleasant sense that actors are lapsing into improvisation will likely test audiences’ patience.
“Angels” should be credited with having a plot, momentum, and some dramatic tension. Looking back, I feel some fondness for the characters, if only because I was in their shoes about 24 weeks ago. But the final point that must be driven home is that a minority of lines failed to induce a cringe or grimace.
Soliloquies about Los Angeles contain epigrammatic nuggets like “No one’s actually from LA. We’re all tourists.” One-liners pack as little punch as “He didn’t die. He was just moderately displaced.” After being compared to trash by his opponent, Pierce challenges him to a fight with the retort, “Bring your rubber gloves and a trash bag. I am trash, and just like trash, I can’t be gotten rid of.” Vouching for the epicness of a party, one guy says, “The girls wear pretty much nothing but the scantiest of outfits!” Climactic moments are punctuated with tortured utterances of “What the fuck, dude?”
To the critic ever on the lookout for an emblematic line, inadvertently an apt commentary on the play itself, one standout was: “Ain’t nobody got time for your theater nonsense.”
I could go on. A neglect of lighting and sound effects … noxious nods to Tupac Shakur … Ivy League Boy whining about being hit on at a gay bar (after going to a gay bar) … Bechdel Test out the window. “Angels” has an insistent way of not being over.
Perhaps my favorite moment came during intermission in the form of “City of Angels,” a transcendent ode to the city. If you’re looking for more melancholic mythologizing of youthful excess and urban ennui, go listen to Drake’s new mixtape. If you’re looking for a buddy comedy with something to say about entertainment culture, see “The Interview.” Heck, read “Looking for Alaska,” that cheesy, teeny volume of pseudo-philosophical pulp.
For those of you who choose to see “Angels:” the show runs through Saturday, Feb. 21st.
Directed by Max Fischer; produced by Hannah Sachs; with Colin Groundwater as Calvin, William Viederman as Shawn, Lindsay Falkenberg as Helen, Cody Kahoe as Harry, Charles Margossian as Tyler, Logan Kozal as BB, Otis Blum as Pierce, Naima Hebrail Kidjo as Emily, Gia Velasquez as Stella.