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Theater review: 'Surf Report' at La Jolla Playhouse

June 27, 2010 |  5:00 pm

Surf report 1 
 The Southern Californian airheads and narcissists of Annie Weisman’s “Surf Report,” which is having its world premiere at La Jolla Playhouse, aren't going to KO any stereotypes. In this coastal kingdom where money and real estate rule, the pursuit of happiness requires an unlimited line of credit or some powerful well-heeled connections.

Again and again I found myself cringing at the sentiments of Weisman’s superficial crew, which includes a venture capitalist fixated on surfing, his obsessive and obsessed personal assistant who’s prepared to sacrifice her family to please his every whim and a blond O.C. cartoon who’s as obnoxious as she is oblivious. Nothing is sacrosanct. When bad things befall them — cancer, adultery, a botched suicide — their reactions are exasperatingly obtuse, as though the issue was a missed sale at the mall.
 
It would be easy to hold Weisman’s satire against her. But she enjoys being provocative as a playwright, even to the point of rubbing her audiences’ noses in the exaggerated shallowness that sets her comedies (“Hold Please,” “Be Aggressive”) in motion.

Surf report 2 When attending a play, it’s important to remember that one isn’t drawing up a guest list. (The most memorable protagonists are likely to spoil your soiree with their fanaticisms.) Weisman’s dislikable characters don’t sink her play. But her vessel has little chance of being seaworthy with a directionless plot and a psychological subject that seems reluctant to appear on deck.

It took me some time to realize that “Surf Report” -- directed by Lisa Peterson in a polished production that seems out of proportion to the play's workshop stage of readiness — is actually a mother-daughter drama.  Early on, when Judith (Linda Gehringer) calls her daughter, Bethany (Zoë Chao), a visual artist who has fled the Pacific Coast Highway for bohemian Brooklyn, Judith mutters “Don’t pick up” while Bethany chants “Don’t be her.” Such family dynamics aren’t uncommon, but it’s a challenge to build a play around what is essentially an evasion — two characters who would prefer to skirt the knotted feelings between them.

Judith and Bethany’s standoff grows frostier after Bethany flies home to be with her father, Hal (Matthew Arkin), who’s had a recurrence of cancer. Judith bribes her daughter to return while she  chauffeurs her boss, Bruce (Gregory Harrison), to Santa Barbara, where, in one of the play’s more outlandish maneuvers, Judith hopes to pitch him an investment deal for a potential cancer breakthrough.

As soon as Bethany is back in California, she meets with a detested high school acquaintance who’s the very embodiment of why she left in the first place. Jena (Liv Rooth), a Valley Girl update transplanted to the seaside, has the annoying habit of sarcastically adding “much” to the end of questions (as in “hypocritical much?” or “insulting much?”). She also has an unerring ability to offend as many people as possible with the fewest number of words. (Of Bethany’s father, she remarks, “He’s so malignant it’s retarded.”)

Do creatures of Jena’s ilk exist outside the realm of jokey send-ups? I’m not sure, but credit should be given to those in Peterson’s cast who neither apologize nor overplay their characters imperfections. Harrison is especially convincing as a smug multimillionaire who assumes everyone enjoys being at his beck and call as he romps around his sleek beachfront pad (seductively sketched by scenic designer Rachel Hauck). And Arkin turns in a sympathetic performance as a husband and dad who, though far from innocent, is undeserving of the misfortunes that keep raining down on him.

Too bad Gehringer and Chao are unable to act their way out of the bind that Weisman’s playwriting has placed them in. The puzzling actions of these deadlocked characters is meant to reflect the way they are mirror images of each other, but much of what they do just seems uninterestingly erratic.

Weisman tries to tie up the ensuing disasters with some surfer wisdom (courtesy of self-absorbed Bruce) about the impossibility of control and the need for patience and humility while waiting for the next wave. But no metaphor can conceal the simple truth that her play, though occasionally tartly funny, is seriously adrift.

-- Charles McNulty

twitter.com\charlesmcnulty

“Surf Report,” La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends July 11. $31-$66. (858) 550-1010 or lajollaplayhouse.org.  Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes

Photos: Top: Linda Gehringer and Gregory Harrison. Bottom: Liv Ruth and Zoë Chao. Credit: Craig Schwartz.

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