The Elvis classic “Viva Las Vegas” begins:
Bright light city gonna set my soul
Gonna set my soul on fire
Got a whole lot of money that's ready to burn,
So get those stakes up higher
There's a thousand pretty women waitin' out there
And they're all livin' devil may care
And I'm just the devil with love to spare
Viva Las Vegas, Viva Las Vegas
Any Elvis fan (or Tarantino fan, why not?) could argue that “Bright Light City,” the new play by Nate Rufus Edelman now playing at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in Downtown LA, is a three-dimensional version of this classic Elvis song.
The play does get the stakes up high (two hitmen check into a motel and wait for orders to make a hit), involve pretty women who live a la devil-may-care (there is a hooker they're hired to hit) and a protagonist with love to spare (the lead is a new kid who is hired to make his first hit); and the playwright does aim to set souls on fire, or at least to turn theater seats up to “dead hot.”
However, Elvis, the singer, and “Bright Light City,” the play, have in common a shiny exterior that keeps under wraps a certain depth.
The play is rife with evocative themes all stuffed into a purposefully “faux” sequin-suit conceit.
There is a surrogate father (Larry played expertly by Leon Russom); a surrogate son (Wally played with energy by Garrett Michael Langston); a surrogate childhood (Wally’s coming-of-age and Elvis’ own illegitimate offspring); surrogate personhood (criminals, celebrities, and impersonators); surrogate city (Vegas and all the little micro-cities like New York and Paris therein); surrogate wealth (via crime and gambling); surrogate success (via crime and gambling); surrogate murder (involving hitmen); surrogate conscience (rationalization and/or sociopathy); surrogate love (with strippers and hookers); and surrogate life -- the life contained in both Vegas and the theater.
This play is full of surrogates, which has the potential to be fascinating.
Where this play could grow is in the area of real. All the seedlings aren’t fully cultivated. All this fakery isn’t countered enough by dirty Earthly truth.
The two strong attempts at truth involve the two main relationships -- the relationship between foil Larry and protagonist Wally, a pseudo father-and-son team that strives to show how a man who never had children can mentor another man who still is a child, and the relationship between Wally and Audrey (her show name is “Ruby Star”), who together portend real-life romantic bond.
But neither attempt at connecting humans to their souls digs deeply enough into the muck. The play doesn’t move far enough beyond witty one-liners to arrive at either epiphany or catharsis.
Like Elvis, the play ends before it actualizes.
While playwright Edelman is talented and smart (he wrote The Belle of Belfast) and is likely to become, as his producer José Luis Valenzuela says, “a very important writer,” he is still feeling his way through this one.
On his journey, Edelman might find answers inside actress Heidi James whose portrayal of Audrey (AKA Ruby Star) is astounding. She is the perfect balance of damaged and whole. She is troubled, but not freakishly so, sensual, but not crass, nurturing but not co-dependent, and newborn-like with a wide-open heart. She captures brilliantly the aim of the play which is to bring healing and light to a sick and dark mentality.
Perhaps real-life surrogate father, Valenzuela, who is both theater producer and professor at UCLA, will guide writer-director Edelman and co-director Angie Scott (Valenzuela’s former student at UCLA where Scott is now a teacher) in that meatier, more layered direction.
Because just like after a weekend in Vegas, we are left after this play wanting more.
Maybe this quasi-theater family might also consider some of the following:
There is a horse motif that is not fully fleshed out. Are all the horses mentioned allusions to the horseheads of mafiosos? Or to the horses of old Westerns (the hero’s sturdy sidekick)? Or are they merely a collective symbol of the balance between wildness and domestication? No matter how hard man tries, he cannot fully domesticate either others or himself. Human evil is the monkey on all of our backs.
Or, is the horse motif meant to evoke notions of humans racing rapidly toward death?
In any case, I would love for this play to more fully explore this horse-as-symbol motif. I am happy to do some of the work myself, but I prefer to play apprentice to the play’s creators as they steer me knowingly along.
Is father-figure Larry a sociopath or a feeling person who has hardened, and how does that distinction affect his ability to father? If he is a sociopath, he would surely fake-father well, (actor Leon Russom clearly has the capacity to go in any direction). If he is a feeling person, his empathy would leak out in either intermittent or increasing measure until it yields a tragic fall. This play currently goes in both directions, but neither direction emphatically, leaving the audience feeling slightly less than satisfied.
It seems that writer-director Edelman and his team haven’t yet decided with certainty what kind of person the father figure is, so the actors don’t play either dynamic completely. They skirt around a father-son, mentor-mentee relationship and don’t head steeply enough into the pathology of both men right in front of us (rather than via exposition) showing how their relationship leads to the final finish.
The most whole and clear character is the prostitute, who is caring, sensual, motherly, vulnerable, authentic and real in a world, and despite a job, that typically necessitates otherwise.
While this notion of whole, trusting and self-actualized prostitute might not be super realistic (even Lindsay Lohan after just a few years of hard living has the heart of a dragon and the voice of a man), and this child-star-turned-take-home girl would likely be more worn, we forgive this arguable flaw because the actor’s heart is so downright raw. She is the one who most invites the audience into this wild world which is otherwise a crass, hard shell of a place replete with witticisms and bleakness.
To avoid a sitcom tone, the two potential love-birds could indulge more in philosophical musings. That is the nature of plays, anyway, to bask in pontification.
During the second act, the prostitute could purge her whole soul, and so could Wally. After all, they both face a what-have-I-got-to-lose moment where there is absolutely no reason to not lay it all down.
This play is full of seeds and bulbs but not yet full-flower plants. Yet this play is not a plastic plant unable to grow at all. It is not a quasi-plant. It has potential. There is room for evolution.
In fact, this play is the one thing here that is real.
The words, the writer, the directors, the crew, the actors and each night’s audience are all breathing beings who have the power to infuse life in between the lines so that all of us become richer.
Not Vegas richer, but real-world richer, with dedication as direct sun.
“Bright Light City” graces Stage 4 at the Los Angeles Theatre Center through June 22, 2014. Why not bring your dad(s)?