The virtues of Craig Lucas’ play “Small Tragedy” are many, from a wittily accurate re-creation of inglorious backstage theatrical life to characters who seem so like actual struggling actors that you expect them to walk into the audience and take your dinner order. The author’s real triumph, however, comes in one of the play’s final lines — “I choose to be happy” — and the way he makes that simple statement deeply sad and seriously chilling. John Perrin Flynn helms a dynamic production of this Southern California premiere, and Lucas’ clever concept is performed by a superb ensemble.
Housemates Jen (Deidrie Henry) and Fanny (Rochelle Greenwood) are thrilled to be cast in a new production of Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex,” but they soon realize the production situation is less than ideal. Director-adapter Nathaniel (Bill Brochtrup) and his HIV-positive wife, Paola (Hollace Starr), are fighting constantly and publicly, from differences in adaptation ideas to squabbles over who’s going to direct. Nathaniel is openly critical of Jen’s perf. Gay actor Christmas (Michael Redfield) is hopelessly and blatantly in love with Nathaniel. And there is the enigmatic Bosnian refugee Hakija (Steve Cell), to whom Jen finds herself drawn despite Fanny’s repeated warnings.
Henry offers an outstanding, subtle perf as an intelligent woman brought low by fate, whose subsequent self-knowledge, unfortunately, does not make her a better person. Cell is coldly charismatic as the mysterious Hakija, and his perf as Oedipus in the play-within-a-play is appropriately impassioned.
Brochtrup deftly reveals layers of emotional depth within Nathaniel, from hidden arrogance to exasperated love, overlaid with the desperate director’s need to make his play work. Starr brings vigor and acidic wit to Paola’s arguments with her husband, and Greenwood and Redfield display charm and ebullient comic energy.
There is only one flaw in Lucas’ work: The majority of the show is an amusing comedy/drama, and it doesn’t entirely support the concluding descent into tragedy. Director Flynn stages the final scene exceedingly well, from a startling stomp on the floor, which resonates through the theater like a gunshot, to a character kicking open a door that reveals two paintings of Oedipus’ bloody eyeless mask of despair elsewhere onstage — a stunning coup de theatre.
Alexander Enberg’s backstage set is convincingly grungy but also versatile, substituting at a moment’s notice for a bar, an apartment or the subway. Barbara Kallir’s lighting, particularly in the final “Oedipus” sequence, where the stage is bathed in crimson effulgence, is simple and effective.