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Arts and Entertainment

'The Fall to Earth' Features Great Acting But Mixed Playwriting

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JoBeth Williams, Ann Noble and Deborah Puette in "The Fall to Earth." Photo - David Colclasure
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In 2010, the Rogue Machine production of Joel Drake Johnson's Four Places was a sensation, garnering Ovation and L.A. Drama Critics Circle awards, a play in which fine writing, sensitive direction and outstanding acting combined seamlessly. It also was one of my favorite shows that I had seen in recent years, so I had high expectations when I went to see his new show The Fall to Earth, a West Coast premiere by the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble. Unfortunately it was a disappointment: while the acting is superb, the play is a misfire that lags and strains credulity in equal measure.

Fay (JoBeth Williams) and her adult daughter Rachel (Deborah Puette) have just arrived from the airport to the motel room they'll be sharing for a short time. They've come to assist the police in their enquiries concerning the death of Fay's son, Kenny. Fay is comforted by the kind treatment of Terry (Ann Noble), the officer assigned to deal with the situation, but she's shocked when Terry tells her Kenny's death was a suicide. Terry feels for the distraught mother, to the extent that she shows up at the motel and brings Fay and Rachel a meal. She's due for her own surprise when she discovers that she doesn't understand Fay as well as she imagined.

Williams is terrific in a difficult role, expertly portraying Fay as an anxious woman using a stream of frivolous chatter to dispel her own tension. She's so good she just about pulls off the reveal of the family backstory, but Johnson's unconvincing writing doesn't provide her with adequate support. Puette excels as Rachel, initially seeming slightly distant as she puts up with Fay's incessant talk or when Fay acts inappropriately to Terry, but gradually she reveals there's more going on underneath Rachel's professional façade. Her role, however, is underwritten (she disappears for almost a third of the play for no particular reason), and that's a shame, because it would have been interesting to see what Puette might have done with a more fully realized character. Noble impresses by making Terry believable and intriguing, although the role as written seems more like a convenient way of bridging the comical first half of the play to the more serious second half—instead of representing any sort of actual police officer.

Director Robin Larsen (who also helmed Four Places) manages to make Tom Buderwitz's deliberately bland corporate hotel room set into a dramatic pressure cooker, but the choice to use the table and chairs from this room to stand in as a police station doesn't work. Johnson is clearly a talented writer, but the story focus here seems to veer off frequently into anecdotal cul-de-sacs that slow down the pace of the show without appreciably moving it forward. More importantly, a lot of the characters' actions don't ring true, particularly Rachel's actions in the final third, which don't seem so much shockingly true as thoroughly implausible. Ultimately this is that frustrating theatre phenomenon: a great production of an ill-conceived play.

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"The Fall to Earth" plays at the Odyssey Theatre through April 1. Tickets are available online.