With most new plays, you’re lucky if every character is well-rounded. But the trio inhabiting Sofia Alvarez’s “Between Us Chickens” sport at least three full personalities each: the one they show to others; the one they present to themselves; and the deeper, darker one we only fully learn about in the course of the action. “Chickens” is no sense a major work, but young Alvarez could turn into a major scribe. Certainly her play at the Atwater Village Theater becomes more complex and interesting as it goes along.
Perhaps inadvertently, Alvarez practically recaps the history of stage romantic comedies here. The setup is right out of 1943’s smash hit “The Voice of the Turtle,” a seemingly lighthearted romp involving fashionable L.A. party animal (Amelia Alvarez, the writer’s sibling) and her mousy stay-at-home roommate (Annabelle Borke), who look to vie for the attentions of a hearty fellow (Ben Huber) playgirl has picked up and is permitting to crash on the couch. There’s a lot of smart banter beneath which we sense attraction; yadda yadda, we know the drill.
Or do we? Mousy has no interest in men but is tired of being teased as dateless by the parents back home. Houseguest proposes they engage in a pretend romance: He’ll show her all of LA’s most fantastic spots in return for a place in her bed – sex included, of course, but no pressure and no commitments. It’s the sort of “daring, modern” arrangement the likes of Jean Kerr had folks make in 1950s farces, to star Doris Day and Rock Hudson in the 1960s film version (with the canoodling cleaned up).
But suddenly words are projected on the back wall, and we find out what mousy has been doing on her computer all day long, and how she affords the apartment and the support of playgirl roommate. At once we can’t help but reassess each of the trio in turn, and those new, more complicated personalities emerge.
It’s a daring tightrope act Alvarez has set for herself, and it mostly works thanks to persuasive performances and canny direction from Casey Stangl. The strings of the writer-puppeteer are visible throughout, but so are her impressive insights into life in the L.A. fast lane, and the lengths to which it prompts people to put aside their best instincts. Alvarez’s confidence is the sort of harbinger of bigger and better things one likes to witness.