In Jessica Hagedorn’s first commissioned play for Campo Santo, “Stairway to Heaven” (2005), a San Francisco Tenderloin recluse’s privacy is invaded by her haughty, materialistic sister, who had just abandoned her wealthy third husband. Playwright and company are together again for “Fe in the Desert,” which backtracks to explain why the earlier play’s sister left her adoring spouse. But, nothing is very satisfactorily explained in a work that, like its predecessor, puts vivid personnel in attention-grabbing circumstances that ultimately confirm one figure’s musing: “Ain’t life one crazy howling bunch of contradictions?”
That might be message enough for a comedy, and Danny Scheie directs “Desert” as such, his customary high-energy style sometimes bordering on overkill in the close Intersection space.
Likewise, Margo Hall’s Fe (a role she originated, and the only returning character from “Heaven”) has snap-queen ‘tude to spare, but this time it risks being too much of a good thing.
Most frustrating, though, is that Hagedorn has again come up with lively, distinctive protagonists whose dialogue frequently crackles while their twisty interactions keep surprising. Yet there’s never a sense of why these characters are connected or fated to encounter each other. It’s never clear whether the events that unfold are meaningful or just cleverly arbitrary.
Nonetheless, the play is never less than entertaining on a scene-by-scene basis. Fe (short for Felicidad) kicks things off by reciting a list of high-end designer labels and products she uses, which are bankrolled by indulgent current mate Bill (Danny Wolohan). They live in custom-built palatial splendor in the Southern California desert. Yet Fe is impatient, restless, hypercritical.
This is not a good day: Fe has already had a near-fatal car accident (her fault no doubt). Now she’s snorting coke and snarfing rare wine to defuse the remaining anxiety while not appreciating Bill’s attempts to celebrate the birthday she’d rather forget.
Her suspicion that there’s something “creeping” in the distance outside is dismissed as paranoia, until, in the wee hours, this pricey private oasis is suddenly invaded by two gun-wielding perps.
Just what middle-aged Tyrone (Robert Hampton) and hair-triggered young Mook (Jonsen Vitug) have in mind isn’t immediately — or, ever fully — clear. But it does result in some choice standoffs between various members of the foursome. Temperamental Fe can’t stop mouthing off, while Bill, by contrast, cries and cowers.
Tyrone seems both ruthless and refined. His tony vocabulary and mind-your-manners clucking hold sway over raw youth Mook, who may or may not have been his prison “bitch” for the last five years. Meanwhile, brash Hollywood mogul Ramon (Michael Torres) shows up with German-by-way-of-Beirut secretary Suze (Sara Hernandez).
During the night’s long course, recreational and prescription drugs get consumed; there’s a joyous but violently terminated dance interlude. Flashbacks range from “earlier today” to nine years prior, while most characters address us directly in a monologue or two. Many such digressions are amusing, but they are near-incessant, and an occasional dud idea (as when Ty and Mook do a lip-synch routine to the Chi-Lites’ soul classic “Have You Seen Her?”) make the play seem too impish for its own good.
While these characters’ motivations remain undeveloped, the actors dive into their contrary surfaces with relish. Vitug is particularly good at ringing funny variations on what might easily have been a one-note gangbanger part.
Lisa Dent’s clever set design (which features a functioning automatic garage door) is a plus. Use of music tracks ranging from opera to show tunes to Helen Reddy to Beyonce and Jay-Z is, like much here, entertainingly antic if not always relevant. Timothy Jordan’s dual-monitor “media design” is likewise more distracting than pointed.