Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Palm Springs / Coachella Valley

Desert Ensemble Theater
Review by Robert Sokol

Also see Robert's recent reviews of POTUS and A Case for the Existence of God

Richard Marlow and Abe Daniels
Photo by Nathan Cox
Secrets and resentments drive the dramatic arc of Ellie, Bruce Bonafede's play having its world premiere at Desert Ensemble Theatre. Boomer generation brothers Richard (Richard Marlow) and Warren (Abe Daniels) slog through twenty-four alcohol-fueled hours after the funeral of the never-seen title character. Richard flutters with such bereft distress that it is a surprise to learn that the imperturbable, loutish Warren is the actual widower.

From two elegant club chairs and lubricated by repeated pours of a pricey scotch Warren demands, the brothers spar over lifelong wounds and recent transgressive developments. A boor and a bully, Warren pokes at Richard's perpetual soft spot buttons, like hating being called "Little Brother," and needles him with other mean-spirited fraternal jabs. He also mocks Richard's emphatic defense of Ellie's memory and her role in the family.

Richard, long dependent on Warren and Ellie's guesthouse hospitality due to a financially ruinous divorce, cautiously assails Warren for his cruelty to Ellie and frequent infidelities. Warren is a monster. Richard is a mouse. Back and forth it goes into the small hours and a second and then third bottle, with the revelations becoming more substantial, if not completely surprising, until the next day when one brother rings the curtain down on the long-percolating family drama.

Author of Advice to the Players and Manifesto, Bonafede writes solid conversational dialogue, if a bit too much of it, to frame his central conflict. Ellie could easily fit the constraints of NMNI (ninety-minute-no-intermission) evenings and not suffer any dramatic loss, though the lack of an intermission might prove taxing for future actors in need of a mid-performance breather.

With little prescribed action in the plot–the brothers walk in, sit, and talk and drink and talk and drink and talk–director Howard Shangraw does an admirable job creating opportunities for movement and visual variety on an elegant, production-perfect set by Thomas L. Valach. He also draws out wonderfully nuanced sound from his actors, streaming natural rhythms in the long dialogue sequences punctuated by occasional crescendos and contemplative silences.

With his mellifluous voice, Daniels creates an overwhelmingly brutish and graceless baseline for Warren with surprising moments of introspective if steely pragmatism. Formerly employed in the penitentiary system, Warren comments that "the guilty always have to be punished," even when that position and the memory of a prisoner he executed against his intuition haunt him.

At the same time, gimlet-eyed for any advantage, he castigates Richard for what Warren sees as idealistic weakness. "You expect fairness," he spits, making it clear that, beyond questions of crime and punishment, fairness never factors in his own relationships.

Marlow perfectly assumes the milquetoast posture, with his higher-pitched voice and a nervous energy that often dissipates into weary resignation. He was emotionally henpecked and financially destroyed by his ex-wife and it's clear that he thinks he deserved his lot. That is further reflected in his unwillingness to take a risk and improve his employment situation, possibly wrenching himself out from under his brother's thumb of grudging benevolence.

Like a dust storm that stings the eyes, all of their wounds and failings, their actions and conflicts swirl around Ellie, the thing that is not there. Bonafede creates some shifts in the balance of power with revelations (no spoilers here) of overt though assumed secret acts by each brother that impact their relationships with Ellie and each other. While not spilling over into the mystery genre, those truths do lead to a resolution for the combustible, perpetually conflicted family dynamic.

With capable direction and strong performances by Marlow, for whom the role was written, and Daniels, Ellie succeeds enough to carry you over the dry patches. Its core exploration of hurting those we purport to love and the merits of staying in marriages, or any relationships, is a strong one. Perhaps Bonafede will refine the script into a more effective version, something that is more of an intentional play and less an extended two-person conversation, polishing the brighter facets and focusing the narrative.

Ellie runs through March 17, 2024, at Desert Ensemble Theatre, Palm Springs Cultural Center, 300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs CA. Remaining performances are Fridays at 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $37.50. For tickets and information, please visit or call 760-565-2476.