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Review: 'The Contest' at Powerhouse Theatre

March 5, 2009 |  3:30 pm

ThecontestAs Mark Twain once lamented, “Ah, the dreams of our youth, how beautiful they are, and how perishable!”

For the three hopeful art students in Jennifer Rowland’s new play, “The Contest,” which has reopened at the Powerhouse Theatre after a run at the Pacific Resident Theatre, those dreams start to spoil with dismaying rapidity.

Amanda (Jules Willcox), the most talented of the three, seems a shoo-in to win the top contest at her elite art academy. Not so sanguine is Karl (Albert Meijer), Amanda’s sculptor boyfriend, who struggles in the shadow of Amanda’s proven precocity. The couple’s new friend, Faith (Heleya de Barros), a deceptively hapless student with designs on Karl, takes Machiavellian measures to secure her own desires.

Whether Faith’s sabotage of the young lovers is volitional or not remains a tantalizingly open question.  Rowland’s cleverly constructed tale has few pat answers, and, despite an occasional turn into mawkishness, a psychological deftness that resonates.

Steve Marcus’ versatile set convincingly transitions from the art school where the defining contest takes place to a luxury flat in Tribeca some 15 years later, where we are privy to the repercussions of youthful dreams both realized and deferred.

Director Sarah Zinsser and her cast, which includes Daniel Kozlowski as a narcissistic art professor, invest Rowland’s stylish play with gut-wrenching immediacy.  Perhaps the production’s transition to a new space might explain why De Barros swallows so many lines in the first act -– a failing that largely disappears as the fumbling Faith reaches assured adulthood.  Barros’ volume requires a bit of fine-tuning, as does Kozlowski’s comically supercilious professor, who sails just this side of caricature.  However, in Zinsser’s sensitive and keenly paced staging, Willcox, Meijer and De Barros chart their characters’ progression into adult disillusionment with devastating accuracy.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

“The Contest,” Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 2nd Street, Santa Monica.  8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays.  Ends March 14.  $25.  (800) 595-4849.  Running time:  1 hour, 30 minutes.

Caption: Albert Meijer, Heleya de Barros and Jules Wilcox  in "The Contest." Credit: Melissa Snyder

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