By Patrick Hurley
Self discovery can come at any age. Off The King’s Road, playing now through August 2 at the Odyssey Theatre tackles the issue of loneliness and isolation; two unfortunate side effects of survival, of outliving those we love. After the death of his wife, and his own retirement, Matt Browne (Tom Bower) takes a weeklong holiday in London to celebrate his birthday. What ensues is an attempted journey of self-discovery and sexual exploration that is meant to be introspective and psychologically profound.
Off The King’s Road is a small townhouse converted into a London hotel. It is run by the amiable Freddy (Michael Uribes), who takes such an overabundant amount of pride in his work that his dialogue often reads like a travel brochure. Then there’s Ellen Mellman (Casey Kramer) a lonely widow who has been at the hotel for months, and whose best friend is her sixteen year old cat Christina. Matt checks into the hotel, requests a blackboard for his room (you know, like you do), and then writes a list of the things he wants to accomplish while in London on said blackboard. The trouble with the list is that it is so pedestrian that it’s less than perfunctory. It’s pointless. He writes things like art, film, stage, music. Nothing personal, nothing revelatory, it is merely a generic list of things anyone would do in London. One has to wonder if his need to write such elementary things is due to memory loss, a reasonable topic for a play about an aging man. Not the case. He’s making the list because his therapist, Dr. Yablonsky (Thaddeus Shafer), whom he speaks to via telephone, told him it would do him good. Then there’s Sheena (Maria Zyrianova), a prostitute with whom Matt shares an afternoon. The story follows Matt on his weeklong adventure with Freddy, Ellen, and Sheena as he seeks meaningful companionship and self discovery.
Using the film Wild Strawberries, Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece about self-discovery in old age, as a parallel to it’s own narrative proves to do more harm than good to this play. It attempts to align itself with the great master’s film, but isn’t quite dramaturgically sound enough to live up to it. Playwright Neil Koenigsberg uses too many clichès, too many histrionics, and sophomoric dialogue. The play moves rather slowly, and is lacking stakes and dramatic action that would propel the complexities required to match wits against a Bergman film. Mastering the complexities that Bergman played with is no small feat. Mr. Koenigsberg creates a scenario that allows for an aging man to reflect on his life and desperately seek out meaning, much like Bergman’s film, and there could have been an introspective and psychological exploration. But this play is populated with fussy British butler types, lonely, desperate cat ladies, and prostitutes with hearts of gold. We have surface level pop psychology, and Matt speaks his internalized dialogue to his dead wife’s picture leaving precious little room for any subtext or even meaningful silences. The dream sequence is a good example of this. Inviting comparison’s to Wild Strawberries is one thing, but actually using a dream sequence from the film as your own dream sequence in a play ultimately makes the play feel derivative.
Director Amy Madigan, utilizes a variety of lighting and stage tricks, like a partially revolving set, to cover the dramatic action that is sadly lacking from the script. But in the end, it just makes the evening go by slower. As do the blackouts. There are too many blackouts. They stifle momentum, and occasionally the play feels as if it comes to a complete stop. There’s just not enough going on in the script to make the scenes come to life, nor to take any time in-between them.
The cast can do very little to make this material work. Though they all seem to be trying. Casey Kramer, as Ellen Mellman comes the closest to a realized performance. She at least makes her choices seem genuine and authentic.
It would be unfair to compare this play to Wild Strawberries, but since the playwright himself has invited such comparisons by using the film in his play, it seems only fair. Bergman explored the internal terrain of the human psyche with silences, with dreams and nightmares, through interactions between characters that dealt with, among other things, the gray areas in life, not the black and white. The desperation for understanding humanity comes through the exquisite control of language that Bergman possessed. This play deals with the everyday realities of growing old, and instead of embracing the commonalities of aging, of loneliness, and the need we all have for human interaction, it seeks to isolate itself alongside one of the most poignant films ever made. And instead of subtly probing the human psyche, we have pimps throwing rocks through hotel windows, dead cat ashes in handbags, blowup dolls being cuddled, and accidentally sent to the cleaners, and an ending that isn’t earned. It’s underdeveloped melodrama. It wants to be profound. It wants to make some kind of statement on self discovery. But in actuality, the meaning is more reminiscent of a greeting card than a great master’s work.
Off The King’s Road
By Neil Koenigsberg
Directed by Amy Madigan
June 19-August 2
The Odyssey Theatre
2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90025