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Wheel of Fortune

Perhaps overinspired by the title's metaphor, longtime L.A. playwright-turned-expat in Poland John Steppling's new "Wheel of Fortune" often seems an impulsive spin through tenuously connected ideas. That said, it's an interesting -- if hardly satisfying -- dramatic mishmash, well-served by Hector Correa's Campo Santo premiere production.

A correction was made to this review on July 7, 2004.

Perhaps overinspired by the title’s metaphor, longtime L.A. playwright-turned-expat in Poland John Steppling’s new “Wheel of Fortune” often seems an impulsive spin through tenuously connected ideas that settles on spots more random than revealing. That said, it’s an interesting — if hardly satisfying — dramatic mishmash, well-served by Hector Correa’s Campo Santo premiere production at Intersection for the Arts.

It’s not the “what” of story specifics here that bewilder so much as the “what about” of subtextual meaning. Basic situation is relatively clear: Breaking through the antique glass door of his (their?) locked abode, Marie (Alexis Lezin) finds much older spouse Bendix (Donald E. Lacy Jr.) OD’d on pills, body badly bruised from the preceding two days’ thrashing about on the floor. He’s taken to the hospital, where he becomes violently agitated each time staff try to prod him toward wakefulness.

Meanwhile the police, represented by shiny-domed Detective Jermayne (Paul Santiago) and youthfully cocky Det. Hodges (Michael Cheng), question prickly Marie at length. They’re uncertain whether she was actually involved in her husband’s near-death state. They are also unclear on the exact nature of the relationship, a predicament the audience shares right through final blackout.

Brief, often cryptic scenes gradually build into a weave of character dramas/concerns. Some are just pretentiously idiosyncratic, with no useful connection to anything else (such as Marie’s long, dull recitations on the lore of rose gardening). Others are underdeveloped, like the entire character of neighbor Jackie (Dawn-Elin Fraser). The playwright’s tactic of having figures not so much talk to each other as duet on two alternating monologues, oblivious to each other’s words, is a writerly mannerism that can grow annoying.

But much of “Wheel” has an agreeable unpredictability in both humor and character dynamic. If Marie and Bendix (in theory the most important duo here) never really seem linked, her growing sexual frisson with stony cop Jermayne does work — largely due to Santiago’s enigmatic Joe Friday-goes-lovesick interp.

Likewise, comedy both absurd and touching develops from a plus-sized night nurse’s (Dawn-Elin Fraser) “affair” with the semi-comatose Bendix. Inclined to use unconscious patients for her sensual pleasure, she discovers a special, even romantic bond with this one. (It’s typical of Steppling’s freestyle inventions that otherwise dead-to-the-world Bendix converses freely with her.)

Ostensibly a mystery focused on the who and how behind Bendix’s possibly brain-damaged state, “Wheel of Fortune” reveals just anticlimactic answers. Why he attempted suicide is never really explored, beyond knowledge that he’d tried it before.

Death and failure are the ideas hanging most conspicuously over the progress here. But like his characters’ lives, Steppling’s insights on these matters just trail off after a couple hours of stage time. “It’s all a race toward nothing,” one figure says. Indeed.

Still, this nicely calibrated, simply staged production makes the text’s bemusedly fatalistic riffing come off as a form of intelligent prankishness.

Wheel of Fortune

Intersection for the Arts 65 Seats; $15 Top

  • Production: A Campo Santo and Intersection presentation of a play in two acts by John Steppling. Directed by Hector Correa.
  • Crew: Set, Lisa Dent; costumes, Christopher Verdosci; lighting, Christopher Studly; sound, Drew Yerys; music, Marcus Shelby; stage manager, Michael G. Cano. Opened, reviewed Oct. 20, 2003. Running time: 1 HOUR, 50 MIN.
  • Cast: Marie Bendix, nee Fortune - Alexis Lezin Nella/Nurse - Nora El Samahy Jackie/Nurse 2 - Dawn-Elin Fraser Det. Jermayne/Father Albert - Paul Santiago Det. Hodges/Dr. Alcar - Michael Cheng Bendix - Donald E. Lacy Jr.