The Los Angeles Theater Ensemble’s local premiere production of Neil LaBute’s “The Distance From Here” has the merits of good performances and Theodore Perkins’ intelligent direction to recommend it. Unfortunately, the play is a rare misfire from its usually estimable author: a retread of Eric Bogosian’s “subUrbia” with a dash of Edward Bond’s “Saved” thrown in for last-minute shock value. The piece works in fits and starts, but its ultimate impact is negligible.
The story follows several days in the life of aimless teenager Darrell (Nathaniel Jason Meek) and his friends as they hang out at the mall, mock the monkeys at the zoo or goof off in detention. He’s trying to scrape up enough money to buy on-again/off-again girlfriend Jenn (Lauren Eckstrom) a birthday present.
His casually dismissive mother Cammie (Kimberly Patterson) and her Gulf War vet boyfriend Rich (Justin Zsebe) are no help to him, and his stepsister Shari (Meredith Hines) — whose infant’s crying serves as a constant background noise — is trying to seduce him. Things come to a head as he begins to suspect his friend Tim’s (Michael Lovan) intentions toward Jenn.
Director Perkins makes efficient use of the small space, staging a scene on a stairway in the middle of the audience, separating a living room set from the main stage through the use of Levolor blinds and employing offstage sound effects.
He gets strong work from his cast, but some of the fight scene choreography seemed loose enough that actors might get injured. On the night reviewed, a thrown trashcan nearly hit the front row of the audience. Francois-Pierre Couture’s set design is minimal but effective.
Meek is dramatically believable as the charismatic if unstable protagonist, but he can’t quite pull off his final scene. It’s not his fault: The conclusion of the piece feels shoehorned in by the playwright, as if he remembered at the last minute that this was a Neil LaBute play and thus had to have a controversial ending. It doesn’t work, and it borders perilously on the ridiculous.
Eckstrom and Lovan fare better: Their scenes together, as Tim and Jenn awkwardly fumble toward each other and decency, have a sweetness found nowhere else in the play.
Zsebe is impressive as the duplicitous Rich, and his unexpectedly emotional monologue about flying a beautiful kite in Iraq is a quiet epiphany. Patterson and Hines are both good as two not-very-good mothers, each bringing a sense of reality to her role. Jason Shepard is crudely hilarious as a talkative pet shop employee.