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Theater review: Chalk Repertory Theatre's 'Hell Money' at Agenda Loft

April 7, 2011 |  7:00 pm

Julie Katie Chalk Repertory Theatre specializes in unconventional venues, such as real people’s houses, that create an unsettling intimacy between performers and audience. Opening the company’s third season, “Hell Money” is staged in Agenda Loft, a studio-for-hire in downtown L.A.'s historic San Fernando building. 

If plays were banned and drama addicts forced to prowl the underworld, this is what a typical night at the theater might be like. There’s an aura of intrigue to entering the bare lobby (high ceilings, faded glamour), speaking to a man with a walkie-talkie, riding an elevator, creaking down the hall into what seems to be somebody’s apartment and sitting inches from one of its occupants (Jennifer Chang), who’s watching TV.

It’s like going to a speakeasy, except that instead of gin you’re expecting avant-garde theater.

Depending on your point of view, you'll be either relieved or let down when “Hell Money” turns out to be a slight, sweet post-adolescent comedy in the “What a zany night!” tradition, with the requisite kooky visitors, shocking revelations, narrowly averted disasters and fragile, hopeful connections. But the performances are strong; director Jen Bloom uses the space creatively but not too pushily; and playwright Ruth McKee softens her overeager plot with witty dialogue and two charming, complex protagonists.

Julie (Chang) and Katie (Elia Saldaña) are former foster children living on their own in L.A., dreaming and subsisting on ramen noodles. Julie has posted their rules on the wall: “No boys, No sex, Yes! College!” She’s so driven that, like the witch from “Rapunzel,” she imprisons her roommate in her expectations, ignoring evidence that the spirited, sensual Katie has other ideas.

Boys (and sex) inevitably intrude. First comes Tony (Burl Moseley), a pre-med student and drug dealer (his clients are “angry lacrosse players”). Next bumbles in Norman (Ewan Chung), your standard-issue sitcom neighbor — invasive, well-meaning and always up for supplying exposition. All four actors are comfortable, committed and appealing, although at times, both Moseley’s ostentatious Nigerian accent and Saldaña’s Spanish-inflected sing-song voice threaten to run away with the show. 

The ending is perfunctory and uncertain, harping unnecessarily on
McKee’s lovely symbol of “hell money” (fake bills that the Chinese burn to provide a dead relative with spending money in the afterlife). But overall it's a unique night at the theater that will connect you to the L.A. of the past, the present, and (with any luck) the future.

-- Margaret Gray 

“Hell Money,” Chalk Repertory Theatre at Agenda Loft, 400 S. Main St., Suite 601, Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 24. $20 through April 10; $25 April 14-24; $15 students/seniors with ID.  Contact: (323) 274-7737 or Running time: 90 minutes.

Photo: Jennifer Chang and Elia Saldaña in "Hell Money." Credit: Joanna Chang