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Arts and Entertainment

Bay Area Theater Company Brings 'Ransom, Texas' to L.A.

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Tensions between overbearing fathers and the resentful sons who chafe at their influence are a recurring theme in the American dramatic canon. William Bivens's Ransom, Texas situates this classic conflict in the back office of a family-owned factory, where Bruce (Damien Seperi) demands that his father Vern (Dixon Phillips) sign a contract to sell off the drill bit manufacturing business that Vern's own father had started some decades earlier. Vern obligingly puts pen to paper shortly after the play begins—but shortly after that he nonchalantly feeds the document into a paper shredder. So the generational battle gets underway.

Bruce evidently wants to sell the company so his own young family will be able to leave the "dying town" of Ransom for another region of the state where he can pursue his own entrepreneurial dreams. Vern, for his part, seems reluctant to see the family business that he and his father before him built up get transferred into the hands of strangers with unclear plans for the company's future. Then, over the course of the play's 70 minutes, naturally, we learn that both father and son have other motivations entirely. What's constant is that Bruce will not let his father leave that office alive without signing the sales contract and Vern won't let the company go if it means laying off most of the work force and destroying the community.

Ransom, Texas is the second production in the past year that the Virago Theatre Company of northern California has brought down for a run at the Asylum on Hollywood's Theater Row. Bay Area-based director Jon Tracy resolutely maintains the intensity of Bivens's father-son showdown as Vern unspools a skein of revelations that redefine Bruce's understanding of their relationship (the impact of these dramatic high points was undermined a bit on opening night by a friend of the production taking cell phone pictures from the front of the audience for all of us to see). Unfortunately the play conspicuously lacks a conclusion, and there is nothing Tracy can do to obscure that.

Doubling as the show's lighting designer, Tracy illuminates set designer Nina Ball and prop designer Julie Gillespie's amazingly detailed anti-atmospheric back office room in suitably depressing fluorescents for both day- and nighttime scenes on the small Asylum Lab stage. "Not a goddamn thing has changed" in this space for as long as Vern can remember, and the office is chockablock with books and papers and old-time accessories like a rotary dial phone, a paper Rolodex, faded pin-ups and the sports trophies that factory workers' kids have won over the years, but certainly nothing like a computer. (The shredder might be the only new-fangled contraption in the whole place.) It's exactly the kind of room a young man would want to clear out of forever and an old man who's spent his life there might reluctantly cling to as his own perverse shrine.

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In the role of Vern, Phillips compellingly shifts back and forth between alcohol-fueled Learian rage at his unappreciative son and reflectively bitter acknowledgement of his own shortcomings. Seperi's Bruce is no match for his father in emotional depth or self-awareness, retreating into rote MBA-speak when challenged to justify his ambitions, but he can strategically roll with the disdainful punches that Vern keeps meting out. The actors' obviously mismatched accents detract from the belief that these are two scions of a single Texas family, but this incongruity recedes from attention before too long.

Ransom, Texas runs for two more weekends at the Theatre Asylum Lab, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 and Sundays at 2. Full-price tickets $25 (Friday and Saturday) and $15 (Sunday); discount tickets available for some performances on Goldstar.