As Murray Mednick experiments with language and investigates the majority’s relationship to indigenous cultures, he is emblematic of a Los Angeles dramatic tradition in much the same way that Clifford Odets is identifiable with Gotham or David Mamet with Chicago. The world premiere of “DaddyO Dies Well,” at the Electric Lodge, is full to bursting with Mednick’s patented cascades of imagery and amusing juxtapositions, though a central performance serves to keep the event relatively earthbound.
Thanks to hurried exposition, unfamiliarity with the first four of eight “Gary Plays” is no impediment to appreciating this fifth installment, which finds thirtyish Angeleno actor Gary (Casey Sullivan) depressed — and no wonder, after a couple of breakups, his young son’s random shooting death and a restraining order barring contact with two young daughters.
Still, because this is a Mednick play, we aren’t surprised when Gary’s real problem proves to be serenity deficiency, characterized by a dearth of the transcendent oneness with nature ascribed to Native Americans, rainforest denizens and others practiced in the ways of shamanism. Leaping to the rescue, empathetic but ailing stepfather James (Hugh Dane) prescribes an intervention with the powerful hallucinogen ayahuasca, designed to get Gary straight so “DaddyO” can depart this mortal coil in peace.
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Sullivan, a winning performer even at Gary’s lowest ebb, believably charts a progression from panicky dry heaves to wonder as the Quechua brew brings this modern Everyman face to face with “reality.” A chorus of helpmeets and hangers-on, from halfway around the world and from other dimensions altogether, contributes to the journey with chanting and the odd quip. (“I’m a doctor and I hate you,” confesses genial medico Jack Kehler, clarifying: “Not you personally, just your human kind … As I always say, money is more important than people.”)
But the verbal heavy lifting is assigned to a charisma-light Dane, who struggles to endow DaddyO’s pontifications with purpose. For a self-described “old hipster who knows what’s what,” Dane slips too often into unvaried, wide-eyed incredulity, while his shaky command of the words suggests they’re the products less of DaddyO’s mind than of Mednick’s word processor.
Doing better by the verbiage is Strawn Bovee as late wife Mama Bean back from the underworld, effortlessly radiating the grace with which everyone credits her. “I’m happy no matter what,” she confides, and we buy it, bewitched by Dan Reed’s shimmering lighting effects and John Zalewski’s haunting South American sound mix.
“Nothing can take happiness away from me,” she avers, “not human weakness, human error, catastrophic climate change, human pride, human arrogance, nothing, because happiness is right here in my heart forever.”
DaddyO is skeptical: “Well, you’re in heaven, Frances, so what the hell?” But while his advice keeps falling on our deaf ears, her bliss recipe seems readily actionable by residents of Amazon and asphalt jungles alike, whether under the influence or not.