The title of Historic Times, the new play by Andrew Case that opened last night at the 78th Street Theatre Lab, refers to a curse mentioned during the course of the play, "May you live in historic times." The characters Case has created - and, in some cases, borrowed from - understand this well, and by the time the play has ended, so will the audience, at least a little.
The play takes place in Los Angeles in two very different years. The first act occurs during 1944 ("The War," according to the program and a projection used in the show) and the second in 1999 ("The Other War"). It's not the exact years that are important, but rather the superficial nature of the city, the wish to forget unhappiness and everything beneath the surface that Case is trying to tackle.
The first act makes the point far more subtly and more effectively than the second. Using the sunny, air headed Valerie Vail (Keri Setaro), prospective Goldwyn girl, as the object of the more serious characters' affections, Case grounds the first act solidly. The second act is not quite as tight. Because its story, about a police misconduct officer (played by Jeremy Alan Richards) investigating an African woman, is more preachy, it is ultimately less involving, and actually dilutes much of what the first act accomplishes.
With that exception, Case generally has a good grasp on how he wants to present his subject matter. A discussion about Wonder Bread between Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno (Scott C. Reeves) and composer Arnold Schoenberg (Evan Zes) in the first act has a strong resonance when the subject comes up again, in a reduced capacity, in the second act. Two hilarious New Year's Eve parties, thrown by Dorothy Chandler or Elizabeth Short (both played by Kate Cordaro) set the atmosphere of both the time period and the elite party circuit perfectly. Rendell's direction never hinders matters, and while some of the correlations between time periods could be crisper, is generally fine throughout.
The cast is mostly fine, with a few notable exceptions. Livia Newman, as suicidal poet Dorothy Parker in the first act and the escapist hospital worker Suzanne in the second, seems to love exploring the darker side of human nature that she explores in both her roles, but displays just the right amount of vulnerability underneath. Zes, as Schoenberg (who "emancipated the dissonance") is an absolute riot whether expressing his intentions for Vail with a tuning fork, sniffing an olive, or dueling his arch-rival Igor Stravinsky (Zander Teller) with a conducting baton. Reeves, as Adorno, carries the first act well, but makes less of an impression as a disturbed performance artist later.
Historic Times has little good to say about the cultural climate of Los Angeles or the way we handle grief and adversity in our lives. It does, however, provide an interesting examination of where we've come and where we might be going. If its characters have little faith in the world and the happiness it can bring, Historic Times warns us that we need not live our lives the same way.
The 78th Street Theatre Lab