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Theater review: 'Wonderlust' at Theatre of NOTE

September 1, 2011 |  3:44 pm

Cody Henderson's “Wonderlust” at Theatre of NOTE is a philosophically intriguing take on the elusive nature of love. Yet confusing character arcs muddy Henderson's meaning.

Celebrated high school biology teacher Andrew (Tristan James Butler), recently dumped by his wife, is freshly back at school after suffering a mild heart attack. As a year-end assignment, Andrew has his students record their heart rates at intervals of boredom or excitement. It’s an experiment that Sharon (Elia Saldaña), a bright but disaffected senior, tackles with a vengeance, forming a sexually experimental “club” to quantify the physiological response of lovemaking. When Andrew's students start acting out, orgiastically, during school hours, Andrew finds himself the object of career-crushing controversy.

Designer Barbara Lempel's classroom set is impressively detailed, while Jonathan Klein's effective projection design -- an upstage screen flickering with thumping human hearts -- provides a witty visual metaphor for the throbbing adolescent impulses that prove Andrew's undoing. 

Director Amber Skalski’s staging is briskly paced and truthful, although  Butler overplays his stoicism to a curiously affectless degree.  However, Saldaña has the rhythms of adolescent resentment down to a T, and Brad C. Light shines as Sharon’s uncle, a born-again congressman who exploits the scandal to further his own political agenda. Carl J. Johnson gives the most marvelously layered performance of the evening as Ralph, a comical old bore longing to be viewed as “cool” by his students.

Unfortunately, Ralph ultimately devolves into cheap caricature, while Henderson's characters tend to seesaw from the sympathetic to the repugnant -- arbitrary shifts that compromise their emotional veracity. Still, although flawed, “Wonderlust” cuts to the pulsating heart of complex human emotions with lacerating wit and style.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

“Wonderlust,” Theatre of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 1.  $22. (323) 856-8611. Running time:  2 hours, 15 minutes.

Photo: From left, Carl J. Johnson, Tristan James Butler, Brad C. Light, Elia Saldaña. Credit: Darrett Sanders.