Midway through the world premiere of “Water & Power” comes a lengthy scene so perfectly written, directed and played, so chilling and yet so hilarious, that it justifies the efforts of sketch comedy troupe Culture Clash to expand its artistic ambitions and the gamble of Center Theatre Group artistic director Michael Ritchie. If the rest of the production falls short of the sequence’s brilliance, enough bilingual humor and site-specific relevance remain to mark “Water & Power” as a significant local artistic milestone.
In an elegant restaurant — deftly evoked, as are other locations, by Rachel Hauck’s scenery and Alexander V. Nichols’ lighting — a genial white-suited power broker known only as the Fixer (Dakin Matthews) plays host to idealistic state Sen. Gilbert Garcia (playwright Richard Montoya), whose police officer twin brother Gabriel (Herbert Siguenza) is under siege at a seedy motel by mysterious yet murderous figures. Over dinner, Fixer explains the exact trouble Gabriel is in and pointedly names the price Gilbert must pay to fix things: withdrawal of plans for an environmentally green, community-friendly East L.A. riverwalk in favor of privately owned condominium development.
Scene encapsulates all the anger and social criticism fueling “Water & Power,” beginning with the agonizing realization (also central to 2003’s Culture Clash Taper smash “Chavez Ravine”) that the fates of the L.A. many are held in the hands of the often capricious and heartless few.
Gilbert’s desperate effort to bargain without sacrificing his dream reflects another of Montoya’s key concerns: the moral quandary of L.A.’s burgeoning Latino power class.
In this single appearance, Matthews also offers the show’s sharpest acting. Fixer, who resembles the depraved love child of Truman Capote and Michael Moore, keeps Gilbert wriggling like a hooked worm as he chomps down watercress and merrily quotes Notorious B.I.G., wrapping up with a shocking act involving real water and real power that makes the audience gasp.
Back at the motel, the drama is less trenchant. The title contains the brothers’ nicknames — twin concepts that are symbolically invoked again and again, less effectively each time.
Gabriel, drugged up and haunted by that which he has done in the LAPD, believes he has become a monster, but since we’ve already been in the presence of a genuine monster (who wears a white suit), the cop’s anguish feels thin. Gilbert, meanwhile, is too glum throughout, lacking the glee in wheeling and dealing that would render his ultimate disillusionment truly moving.
Director Lisa Peterson keeps things rolling along, but pulling together these disparate themes and characters would challenge any helmer.
Stronger acting in the fraternal roles might help, although no one could possibly be more amusing. Satirical comedy is Culture Clash’s wheelhouse, and the jokes are plentiful and welcome even when they serve to undo the dramatic tension. No local pol, neighborhood or ethnic group goes unskewered, with so many names dropped that even the most savvy longtime Angeleno may not get every reference. A couple of Mel Gibson gags suggest the day’s events during the run will be reflected in the text.
Clasher Ric Salinas, thanklessly saddled with much of the windy philosophizing, also gets most of the funniest lines and makes the most of them.
Young Moises Arias does triple duty as the two brothers in flashbacks, differentiating them skillfully and as a “Deer Dancer,” a prancing figure who guards against the “Lords of the Dark,” one of the show’s more accessible symbolic conceits.
Arias also figures prominently in the poignant final moments. It would have been easy to end this story, “Chinatown”-style, on a note of bleakness or even nihilism. But Culture Clash’s conviction that some politics is redeemable and some grace is possible in these twisted times attests to the healing power of art.
Near a gravesite, the Deer Dancer is divested of his antlers and gear and is left as a child. Handed a ball with the command “Play!” he leaps off the stage with all the energy that “Water & Power” possesses in its best moments. Both boy and production leave us with the best possible resolution for any social-problem drama: hope.