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'Focus Group Play' Tests Well in LAbWORKS Theater Festival

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Playwrights can have a tough time trying to mesh the personal and the sociopolitical realms of experience without forcing their characters into contrived situations or turning them into unnatural mouthpieces for some point of view. But in her new, perhaps still-developing "Focus Group Play," which is one of seven shows in the Katselas Theatre Company's LAbWORKS series, Carrie Barrett ingeniously hits upon a perfect setting in which greater external forces can be seen impinging on the lives of the people on stage.

Five nervous adults, who could all really use the $125 stipend, are recruited to participate in a focus group to discuss their respective relations to meal replacement bars and to sample new products presently being tested for the market. The session's moderator (Jen Drohan) appears to be a gregariously soulless stick-to-the-script professional drone charged with keeping this somewhat motley crew on point and on schedule. Everyone in the room knows, too, that a cadre of corporate higher-ups are observing their every move from the other side of the one-way glass mirror on one wall.

Each one of these focus group guinea pigs is a bundle of quirks and fears which get activated, much to Miss Moderator's initial discomfort, by even minor revelations about the products, and the company, they are there to discuss. And within the hour they all, even their host, come to legitimately recognize the manipulations and humiliations to which their corporate overlords persistently subject them both in and outside of the room.

Impeccable comic timing from the entire cast and an often very funny script keep the play from devolving into either grim social commentary or lightweight melodrama. Alissa Ford as a desperately cynical troublemaker and Celia Finkelstein as a desperately eager-to-ingratiate simpleton are especially engrossing, and Darcy Shean, Caro Zeller and Brian Hamill round out a remarkable ensemble. Drohan masterfully modulates her transition from an officiously plasticine shill into a vulnerable woman wronged, although her character's complaints about the personal and professional mistreatment she has endured are a bit facile in comparison with everything else Barrett gives us.

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"Focus Group Play," directed by Eric Hunicutt, runs at the Skylight Theatre tonight through October 7. Full-price tickets on the Katselas Theatre Group web site, discount tickets for most performances on LAStageTix and Plays 411.