I wish life had a rewind button,” we are told early on in “Gone to L.A.,” actress-turned-writer Lolly Susi’s first play. But it’s not the fault of Susi — an expatriate American resident for some 21 years in London — if what is clearly a painfully personal piece of writing has a disconcerting air of deja vu. The latest in a spate of cancer-related plays that this year have already included the wildly mawkish “Spoonface Steinberg” and the contrastingly clear-eyed and empathic “A Lump in My Throat,” “Gone to L.A.” tells a sorrowful tale that — sad to say — also seems, dramatically speaking, rather stale. At this rate, the way will be well-paved for the British debut of Pulitzer Prize winner “Wit” by the time it reaches the West End in April: For once, last truly may be best.
There’s no denying the mournful impetus of “Gone to L.A.,” which is everywhere rooted in Susi’s own struggle against cancer, an ordeal that began just over four years ago with a cancerous lump in her breast. Susi’s alter ego of sorts, a theater director named Ella (Ingrid Lacey), discovers hers during a bout of lovemaking with partner Nigel (Charles Daish).
From there, it’s off to the Middlesex Hospital for Ella — “Club Mid,” as she wryly puts it — and various debilitating bouts of chemotherapy, morphine drips and the like. Ella’s fearsome decline is presided over by Tony (Adrian Lukis, finding the chill beneath the charm), a goateed slacker who we realize before long is the walking embodiment of death. (Ella’s wish vis-a-vis- mortality: to negotiate an “arranged overdraft.”)
“I’m back,” Tony coos upon hearing of Ella’s 12 cancerous lymph nodes, while her best friend Marcie (Clare Cathcart) — the play’s “angel of mercy” — aims to provide moral support against overwhelming odds. One minute, she’s at Ella’s bedside offering crystals; the next, she has shaved her head in sympathy with a friend whose deteriorating condition is rendering Ella less than charitable.
Along for the sometimes grimly funny ride is fellow patient Carmen (Melanie Hudson), a wisecracking sufferer possessed of her own gallows humor. While Ella states the unarguable — “it sucks to be sick all the time” — Carmen lifts the same sentiments into something theatrical: “They ought to put out a cancer magazine,” she remarks drolly, “and call it ‘Goodbye.’ ”
There’s no denying the cathartic value of “Gone to L.A.,” which movingly takes its title from the lie Ella has recorded on her answering machine so she won’t have to explain her absence to callers. Whether that makes it particularly interesting as drama is an issue that remains open to debate, notwithstanding the self-evident sympathies of director Rupert Goold’s well-judged production.
Without using “Wit” as a cudgel to take to first-timer Susi, one wishes this play gave some sense of its afflicted heroine beyond her status as victim: The characterization is as scant as Ella’s hair that, disturbingly, disappears over time.
And though the idea of a protracted gavotte with death distinguishes “Gone” from other plays of its sort, one feels that the play, at heart, is a TV movie awkwardly tethered to the stage, with Goold and his able designers — the play is positioned traverse-style, with the audience facing each other across a central playing area — having to work overtime to individuate a scenario that is all too common.
The play’s most memorable moments belong to its supporting actresses, starting with Cathcart, whose schoolteacher Marcie cuts an always truthful figure of generosity unencumbered by sentimentality. Blessed with crack comic timing that seems to surprise even herself, Hudson’s Carmen wryly encapsulates an entire state of despair, remarking to Marcie, “Tell us stories from your world,” as if the healthy occupied some uncrossable divide.
That Susi is still here to tell us her story prompts its own reasons to cheer , and on that basis alone, “Gone” was worth producing.
What one misses, though, is a particular voice to accompany the act of self-revelation, even if performer Hudson’s is certainly one pungent voice that, with luck, we’ll be hearing again.