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New Play 'The Vacancy' Offers Prospect of LA Theater Scene Being Taken by Storm

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While catching a great new play is obviously the theatergoer's jackpot, it may also be just as rewarding to come across the early work of a potentially great new playwriting talent. That's why any roughness around the edges in 26-year-old Jeptha Storm's debut full-length play, "The Vacancy," which premiered this weekend at The Lost Studio, seems beside the point. There are just too many powerful scenes with such richly evocative dialogue here to walk out thinking about how the sum of these parts might in theory have been marginally improved. The far more pressing take-home question the show poses is: Hey, who is this Jeptha Storm?

Well, for one thing, he's the nephew of John Steppling, a prominent Los Angeles-based playwright of the 1980s and '90s who then left for Europe and hasn't maintained much of a public presence here over the past decade and a half (although he did win the LA Weekly best play award when he briefly ventured back to direct a new work called "Phantom Luck" in 2010). Steppling is acknowledged as a mentor in the "Vacancy" program and the Lost Studio itself was one of his principal home venues back in the day, so Storm evidently isn't shying away from any suggestion of a legacy or influence.

Most of the "The Vacancy"'s action takes place in two rooms of a motel hidden in the forest up near the Washington/Canada border. In one of these rooms three low-level criminal types (Jonathan Cahill, Jack Littman and Michael Kurtz) hole up for several days waiting for their leader, a guy named Dallas, to show up with a plan of action. In the other room a young married couple has checked in for an extended get-away-from-it-all excursion, though the intensity of husband Howard's enthusiasm for their natural surroundings is matched by a corresponding revulsion in his teenage bride Lucy. From time to time, too, the figure of a disheveled old man (Jim Storm, who is Jeptha's father and Steppling's cousin) emerges from the woods, unseen by any of these motel occupants, to deliver a lamentation over his lost daughter.

Throughout the first act, playwright Storm neatly alternates between these two rooms and their contrasting story lines in brief, satisfyingly self-contained scenes—separated by momentary blackouts and snippets of classic roots music recordings—of a kind once familiarly characterized around these parts as "Stepplingesque." This style may or may not be consciously emulated or inherited here, but, either way, Storm has taken it for a good run on his own.

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The play opens with one of the criminals relating a hilariously earnest story about his missed opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a fortune-making scheme to tour around the country charging big money for the spectacle of two stage-fighting bears in the back of an RV. Not long after, in the other room, Howard (Toby Bryan) rues that he and Lucy (Shayne Estin) have failed to follow the helpful advice that the man in the gas station on their way up had offered about how to achieve orgasm. (However close their relationship may be, we later learn, it's never been "pelvic.") Meanwhile, a criminal in the first room recalls his late mother with unusual solemnity: "God rest her soul. God rest her filthy fucking soul."

Things fall apart a little bit after intermission when "The Vacancy"'s disparate narrative elements inevitably converge. The much-anticipated arrival of the mysterious Dallas (Jeff Torres) turns out to be a rather wan plot point, reviving an anecdotal premise that had already run its course in the first act. (There's a reason why Beckett never brought in Godot, after all.) Dallas's violent intrusion into the world of Howard and Lucy does increase the tension for a while, but this conflict culminates in more of a whimper than a bang: the play peters out with two of the main characters inertly asking "What's next?" in consecutive concluding scenes. The quietly devastating final monologue of the old man in the woods a few minutes earlier would have given "The Vacancy" a far more potent last word.

Cahill, Littman and Kurtz are all fine, but essentially miscast, as the trio of criminals waiting for Dallas to show up. Storm's script imbues the Cahill and Littman characters in particular with a dangerous existential desperation that ends up obscured by these actors' post-collegiate hipster mien (not to mention that the bulkier Kurtz is supposed to be the diminutive "small one" among the three). Torres, for his part, delivers all of his lines in a portentous monotone that makes the sinister Dallas much less scary than he should be.

Estin effectively portrays a Lucy whose traumatic personal history renders her both creepy and creeped out as the unwilling companion of a husband contemptuous of her happiness and stability. Initially introduced to us as a dismissably eccentric, obsessive birdwatcher, Howard later proves to be something far more malevolent, a manipulator with an uncanny instinct for "finding these incredibly brittle Achilles heels" in everyone he confronts. This character's true nature in "The Vacancy" is a delicious slow reveal, and that journey of discovery is both very funny and ultimately horrifying in Bryan's performance.

Storm has previously written a few short pieces for production at The Lost Studio, but "The Vacancy" is now his strong calling card for, well, "what's next" in his playwriting career. Not that he's necessarily looking to make a move, but other companies around town would be well advised to send their scouts out right now to get a timely beat on this dynamic young writer. Who knows, representing a new generation on the LA theater scene might just be the family business.

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"The Vacancy," written and directed by Jeptha Storm, plays Friday and Saturday nights through September 27 at The Lost Studio. $20 tickets available at the door or by advance reservation at (323) 933-6944.