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Arts and Entertainment

Theatre Review: The Sunset Limited Is An Intense Dramatic Ride

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Ron Bottitta and Tucker Smallwood in "The Sunset Limited" -- Photo by John Flynn.

Ron Bottitta and Tucker Smallwood in "The Sunset Limited" -- Photo by John Flynn.
Cormac McCarthy isn't a "glass half full" kind of guy. Heroes rarely prevail in his novels, and if they do, as in The Road, the price paid for victory is often death. Being a moral person in an amoral universe is punishingly difficult, he seems to say. In his novels, this theme is generally disguised beneath a veil of plot, from the hit man machinations of No Country For Old Men to the Western tropes of All The Pretty Horses. McCarthy tried something different with his play The Sunset Limited, essentially trimming the plot down to bare essentials, so only an ethical debate between two characters remains. The result is an intriguing exploration of religious faith versus nihilism, and the current production by Rogue Machine gives a superb pair of actors a showcase that crackles with intelligence.

The play begins in Black's (Tucker Smallwood) low-rent apartment, where the front door is chained and padlocked. Black, a deeply religious ex-con, has the only key, and he's not giving it up easily. Seated across from Black at a kitchen table is White (Ron Bottitta), a peevish professor who would very much like to leave, in more ways than one. Black intervened earlier that morning as White tried to fling himself before an oncoming subway car, and now Black feels responsible for keeping White alive. Black does everything he can to change White's gloomy perspective, from humorously cajoling him to earnestly preaching to him, even threatening him, but White may be more of a challenge than Black is expecting.

Considering that the characters don’t even have personal names, it’s all the more notable that the two actors manage to make their portrayals distinctive and intriguing. Smallwood has far more of the dialogue as Black, and he revels in it, switching personas like a master interrogator. His canny and charged performance provides most of the humor in the show, but he never forgets that for Black this is a test of faith, and his concluding words about this have real power. Bottitta essays the quieter role with compelling subtlety, the professor who is not so much despairing as bitter and angry, his initial politeness changing to a well-placed volley of condescending verbal jabs. The heart of this role, however, is the explosive speech White gives at the end, and Bottitta tears into it with expert gusto, like a tiger who’s been waiting too long for red meat.

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This is the kind of show where a lesser director might have the actors overplay to amp up the conflict, but John Perrin Flynn’s direction trusts in the text and his cast and wisely keeps the yelling to a minimum. Initially one might think that McCarthy is writing about race relations, but that’s not his true focus—this is a debate between having faith and having none. The play’s only failing is that it goes on a bit longer than it should, but this is mitigated by the great quality of the work.

The Sunset Limited
5041 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles
Runs Fri. 8 pm, Sat. 5 pm, Sun 7 pm thru Dec. 19
Tickets $25
(323) 960-4424 or