Although the plot is somewhat familiar, John Pollono’s “Razorback” has wit and compelling characterization to spare. The world premiere production by the Rogue Machine company is vivid, moving and often hilarious. As the play that ends its impressive inaugural season, “Razorback” announces Rogue Machine as one of the most ambitious and accomplished new theater companies in L.A.
Dean (Richard Fancy) and his second wife, Sandy (Suzanne Ford), are staying at their beach cottage in Maine with their college-age son DJ (Edward Tournier). They’re taking it easy and trying to savor their time together because Dean is dying of cancer. One night this tranquility is shattered by the arrival of Dean’s older son from a previous marriage, Rocco (Jack Maxwell), and Rocco’s pregnant wife, Rhianna (Melissa Paladino). Rocco’s mother, Ruth (Laura Gardner), is also along for the ride. They’ve brought trouble, as secrets from Dean’s past are about to lethally surface.
Fancy gives one of his best performances as a man who has successfully changed his life only to find it under attack by other people who haven’t changed theirs. He portrays Dean as forceful but sympathetic, underlaid with a cool amusement at the workings of the world. Ford does what she can as the surprised Sandy, but she is stifled by the play’s one underwritten role. This weakness unfortunately affects the ending of the play, because her actions (and the revealed secret of another character who inspires her actions) require an explanation they don’t receive.
Director Elina de Santos gets outstanding work from a cast that seems to revel in the quality of Pollono’s writing. Tournier is just right as the uncertain DJ, and Maxwell is gruffly affecting as the tough Rocco, who still awaits his father’s approval. Paladino is both fierce and tender as Rhianna, who knows what she’s gotten herself into. Ron Bottitta is very funny as the unwelcome Leftie, and Patrick Flanagan gets a good deal of comic mileage from the none-too-bright Lonnie. Finally, Gardner steals the show as the rudely vital Ruth, a woman who thinks Dylan Thomas is something on HBO, and her final scene is the most powerful moment in the play.
The way “Razorback” is set up, everything is leading to the confrontations and revelations of act two, but oddly enough, the character moments and family scenes of act one (which comprises three-quarters of the show) are more effective and memorable. Pollono’s dialogue is fresh and his characters feel real, to such an extent that this play almost works better as a family comedy/drama than a thriller — it doesn’t need a bloody denouement to be satisfying.
Stephen Gifford’s multilevel comfy beach cabin set is so well done that it seems like a real home was simply put onstage. It feels lived in and never seems like a set, and yet does everything a great set should do. Joseph Slawinski’s sound design, with snippets of nature between scenes, is evocative, but the segues from the sound effects to each scene are unnecessarily jarring; someone in the booth didn’t bother to fade the effects down before clicking the playback device off.