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Theater review: 'The Gift Horse' at Working Stage Theater

May 6, 2010 |  8:00 pm
400.IMG_2684 There is much to admire about "The Gift Horse" at Working Stage Theater, where playwright Lydia R. Diamond's 2002 study of the intricacies of human interaction receives its long-delayed West Coast premiere.

Diamond ("Stick Fly") here uses a distinctive dramatic voice, wry, realistic and meta-theatrical.  After a cello passage from Jordan (Nina Daniels), an elegantly gowned sideliner, "Gift Horse" follows Ruth (Ajarae Coleman), an upbeat African American woman eager to share her hard-won passage to maturity with us.

And so Ruth yanks the proceedings back to her college days with gay roommate Ernesto (Arturo Aranda). This begins a series of zigzags through time and space, as therapist Brian (Horace V. Rogers) and Ernesto's wildly different boyfriends Bill (Steven Koller) and Noah (Abraham Smith) enter the mix. The circuitous plot alternates throughout with Jordan's acerbic, seemingly unconnected monologues, all coming together in a touching final twist.
Director Benjamin Haber Kamine uses the tiny venue to respectable effect, barring some lapses in pace around the corresponding couches on designer Aviva Fersht's austere set. The designs are bare-bones but serviceable, notably Austen Hoogen's lighting, and the cast, although still excavating the nuances, is wholly competent.

Coleman is endearingly direct as Ruth, with sharp comic technique that only needs a shade more ambiguity beneath the bonhomie. Aranda could up his volume, but his sensitivity contrasts well with Rogers' casual gravitas, Koller's manic energy and Smith's deadpan sweetness, while the intense, funny Daniels, who wields a mean cello, almost steals the show.

Their efforts often counter some nascent showcase aspects and an overloaded narrative that, for all its cagey theatricality and character focus, doesn't always match up with its ambitions. Even so, "The Gift Horse" has both value and validity. Diamond devotees should certainly check it out.

– David C. Nichols

"The Gift Horse," Working Stage Theater, 1516 N. Gardner St., West Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays and Mondays. Ends May 24. $25 or $20 with discount code LATIMES. (800) 838-3006. Running time: 2 hours.

Photo: Nina Daniels in "The Gift Horse." Credit: Austen Hoogen.