West L.A.’s Odyssey Theater Ensemble has joined forces with Gotham’s New Federal Theater to preem Richard Abrons’ quirky little tale of group catharsis in a crumbling temple in modern-day India. The plot’s flimsy premise leaves lots of room for the compelling comic antics of Daniel Zacapa’s guru Munishree, who whips up drive-though enlightenment for three decidedly self-serving pilgrims from the West. In Jay Broad’s pedestrian staging, Zacapa’s efforts are undermined by these truth seekers, two of whom are never quite in sync with the energetic zaniness of this cellphone-toting truthmeister.
Set in Don Llewellyn’s cartoonish but cleverly wrought “Temple of Doom”-like haven, the action follows cocky New York powerbroker Travis (Joel Polis), his repressed dilettante wife, Mavis (Elizabeth Karr), and their prim but open-minded British pal Lydia (Amy Wieczorek) as they seek out the “meaning of life” from a not-too-well-known spiritual leader who supposedly did wonders for Lydia’s friend. Since their car is due back in an hour, however, they want the fast-food version of total enlightenment.
With this ludicrous premise, Abrons attempts to unveil some compelling insights into the hidden motivations driving these three callow visitors. What follows is a study in hit-and-miss gamesmanship as Munishree utilizes such unorthodox methods as tango dancing and group folk singing (“My Darling Clementine”) to soften up his charges before attacking their psyches with a series of “truth” challenges.
Nothing of import is revealed about these petty folk except that, by session’s end, Munishree has decidedly validated his early warning: “I could hurt you.”
Zacapa certainly gives it his all as Munishree gushes forth with compelling trickery and flattery to get each of these visitors to reveal the real reason behind the quest. He segues seamlessly from harmless clown to a relentless castigator who refuses to allow anyone to leave unscathed. Through it all, Zacapa is dead-on with his character motivation and his comic timing.
His commitment to the scripter’s farcical shenanigans are not matched by Polis and Karr, who spout the lines but don’t appear to believe a word of dialogue coming out of their mouths. Director Broad keeps them on pace but doesn’t appear to have been much assistance in helping them find the veracity of their characters.
Wieczorek is much more successful as Lydia, exuding a captivating amalgam of propriety and sensuality that makes viable the eventual revelations uncovered by Munishree’s psychic probing.
Complementing Llewellyn’s set are the evocative lighting of Derrick McDaniel and the character-perfect costumes of Karen Perry.