The traffic and slavery of human beings for the American sex trade is a subject worthy of a dramatic airing. But this explosive topic needs to be handled with more technical finesse than Steven Leigh Morris musters up in “Beachwood Drive.” Focusing on a Ukrainian woman working for a Los Angeles prostitution ring, the drama makes clumsy dramaturgical efforts to present her personal story within the broader context of a political documentary. Despite a presentable production by helmer Alan Mandell, the show ends up neither fish nor fowl.
As the victim of Russian traffickers who have brought her from the Ukraine to work in Los Angeles, Nadya (well-cast Moscow actress Lena Starostina) certainly has a story to tell. If only Morris knew how to tell it.
Like any other immigrant, Nadya has hopes of becoming a citizen and making a decent life in America for herself and 10-year-old daughter Katerina (a smart perf from Kat Peters). But the former bartender from Odessa is a virtual sex slave, indentured to Russian taskmasters who keep her in line by making threats against her parents back home.
Nadya is not passive by nature, and she tries to get out of her predicament. But whenever she attempts to negotiate the bewildering American system, people lie to her, cheat her, or unwittingly harm her.
Kindly neighbor Hansonia (warmly played by Brenda Thomas), who babysits Katerina for Nadya, mistakenly thinks she’s helping them by sharing their story with social workers. She isn’t.
Rocky (the personable David Medina), an infatuated john, offers Nadya his love. But he neglects to mention he has a wife and family, thereby destroying another dream.
Despite these setbacks, Nadya doesn’t become truly trapped until she is caught in a police sting that puts her in the hands of gung-ho LAPD detective William Cromwell (played with conviction by Peter Brouwer). As the pawn in a dangerous game between brutal Russians and bullying cops, Nadya has no choices left but bad ones.
Although simplistic and a bit too generic, Nadya’s story has legs. The problem is in the telling. And having gone through an initial workshop process at Playwrights Arena in Los Angeles, the play’s final form can only be intentional.
Stylistically, the narrative falls between police drama, cable TV weeper and social documentary. While stage events need not flow in a chronological fashion, the haphazard scene order here causes the play to lose traction. And while Morris has every right to make a bigger political issue of Nadya’s story, his verbose speeches — many delivered in direct address to the audience — register as lectures.
Scribe and helmer would have been better advised to go the full monty. Lose the overly literal sets, cue the Expressionist lighting and Brechtian placards, and go for the full epic style. Either that, or scale back the documentary rhetoric and find the humanity in one woman’s sad story.