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Theater review: 'Scarcity' by needtheater

November 5, 2009 |  3:00 pm

Scarcity 10.300 Meet America's future: A boy, 16, is in a gifted program, making excellent grades. His sister, 11, shows signs of being even smarter. These kids can be whatever they want to be.

Or so we'd like to think.

In demonstrating why they can't, Lucy Thurber presents a heart-wrenching portrait of a much too large segment of the population. Her play "Scarcity," given its premiere by New York's Atlantic Theater Company in 2007, is a harrowing yet miraculously tender account of promise thwarted by poverty in myriad forms -- economic,  emotional, social and many others as well. The play arrives in Los Angeles in a crackling presentation by the rambunctious young company known as needtheater.

Bridget Shergalis portrays the girl with such stinging intelligence that she brings renewed meaning to that old adjective "whip-smart." Jarrett Sleeper, as the boy, is sweetly dutiful, especially toward Shergalis, even as despair drives him toward an anguishing act of abandonment.

Their parents, onetime high-school heroes, can't seem to catch a break. Mom (Rebecca Jordan) is wrung out from being primary nurturer as well as breadwinner, while Dad (Randy Irwin) – stewing in frustration, shame and boredom – is directing inappropriate comments toward his daughter and getting grabby.

Thurber knows where the cliff's edge is, and doesn't push us off of it. Even in dark moments, some everyday humiliation will befall a character who's stepped out of line, and humor bursts through. Under Kappy Kilburn's direction, each person is so fully dimensional that we can always see goodness, no matter how twisted out of shape it has become.

The family's would-be lifelines are the mom's better-off cousin (Steve Walker), a blowhard who's casually cruel toward his wife (Wendy Johnson), and a teacher (Kim Swennen) who gets tripped up by the arrogance of privilege.

The powerful storytelling keeps sending us back to that title to ponder anew how to read it: Scarcity? Or Scar City?

– Daryl H. Miller

"Scarcity," needtheater at the Imagined Life Theater, 5615 San Vicente Blvd., L.A. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 22. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes. (800) 838-3006 or needtheater.org.

Photo: Kim Swennen and Jarrett Sleeper. Photo credit: Stephanie Yee.

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