David Wiener’s new play “Blood Orange” might just be the best movie Paul Thomas Anderson never made. Habitues of the local cineplex will feel right at home in this lost-in-the-soul-of-L.A. landscape, where the palm trees offer no shade from the pounding sun that eventually makes the earth crack, heave up and puke molten dialogue right out of Nathanael West. Watching “Blood Orange,” you may wonder exactly when in the zeitgeist timeline Los Angeles replaced New York City as pop culture’s favorite dystopia. And while we’re on the subject, when did emerging playwrights start writing screenplays for the stage, anyway?
“Blood Orange” opens with quick jump cuts from one character to the next, each getting his or her 15 seconds in the spotlight, followed by an intense car ride that has the retarded boy Ernie-BoBo (Jonathan Hova) egging on his friend Clinton (Pablo T. Schreiber) to drive faster, faster all the way to Baja. Then up with the David Lynch rumbling noise in the background. Quick blackout.
Somewhere between the 5 and the 405 in Orange County, Angela (Wendy vanden Heuvel) is dying of cancer. Linda (Ilene Kristen), at fortysomething, has yet another hot-date boyfriend. And Jill (Susan Pellegrino) envies the Asians who have replaced her high up on the hill. Their husbands are nowhere in sight but the children they left behind are: Angela’s son Ray-Ray (Brian Sacca) watches passively as she paints his face, turning it into a death mask to match her own. Linda’s 14-year-old daughter, known only as the Girl (Julienne Hanzelka Kim), asks the meaning of “rim job.” It seems those words and her name — whatever that may be — keep cropping up together on the men’s room wall at school. Ray-Ray and the Girl, however, are model kids compared to Jill’s Clinton, who dreams of escaping to Mexico whenever he is not screwing the Girl, dropping spitballs into Ray-Ray’s mouth or forcing Ernie-BoBo to give him a blowjob. But what can you expect? His mom has been known to throw dog feces at Angela’s house.
“Blood Orange” is at once vague and portentous. It takes place in “the summer of infinite heat,” somewhere between Prop. 13 and Mount St. Helen’s. With all that weight tossed around, no wonder there’s no room left onstage for character motivation. Wiener is good at putting purple prose in someone’s mouth only to flush it out with another character’s well-directed retort. Less wonderful is his habit of ending each scene with the kind of one-liner that used to drop curtains in Ibsen’s day. Questions of Clinton’s sexual orientation are gratefully left unanswered, although all those absentee fathers are no doubt at the root of it.
Furthermore, the play’s many scenes could use some connective tissue, and it’s probably not a good idea to have characters in any play — but especially this play — say their dreams, sex or whatever is “like being in a movie.”
Anders Cato obviously knows his material and directs musicvideo style. The events come at the audience with relentless speed, leaving no time to piece things together, which is just as well. Only Angela’s death scene flags, but then it could be some Gen-Y homage to Jason Robards’ equally treacly farewell in Anderson’s “Magnolia.”
As for his actors, Kim delivers loopy charm, as does Hova, whose character was last seen in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?”
Productions values are high: John McDermott’s red-on-orange set design and Justin Burleson’s brutal lighting will leave your eyeballs as parched as August in the Southland.