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Lights Off, Eyes Closed at T.U. Studios

by Brian Sonia-Wallace~

Let me be blunt: I liked this play. You should go see this play. It is very good.

I didn’t think I would like it. I admit that from the advertising I was prepared to spend two hours grinding my teeth—and it is a play with purple posters about romance novels, mother-daughter relationships, and love in the modern world. The potential for mush is there, but the play acknowledges it, plays with and against it, and then soars above it. Light’s Off, Eyes Closed is an uproarious comedy that has no problem subverting everything it’s about in one moment, only to have you realize in the next that through the act of subversion it has reaffirmed and transcended each of its themes. By playing with the absurdity of romance as a fantasy genre it shows how very essential fantasy, and maybe even romance, are to deal with the absurdity of life.

Watch out for Sky Pilot Theatre resident playwright Liz Shannon Miller. Her writing is beautifully paced, building a thoroughly believable world in the first act and raising the stakes at a mile a minute in the second act. She keeps the play’s scope small but fleshes out the world so completely that two hours go by in a snap. This is what theater should be—modern, relevant, local, and above all, fun. Hollywood could learn a thing or two about both the heart and the brain of a story from Ms. Miller.

The play’s conceit is simple: when a mother (hilarious yet elegantly dry Mary Burkin) dies, she leaves her only daughter, Jane (a superbly nuanced Joanna Kalafatis), with the task of finishing her final romance novel. Jane is skeptical of the genre (she prefers Star Trek), disillusioned with life, and thoroughly inexperienced with love. Her pep-tastic roommate (Samantha Carro) and her studlier-than-thou high school crush (Jason Kobielus) are canoodling, and her mother’s agent (Chera Holland) is breathing down her neck. On top of that, she doesn’t know how she feels about her new maybe-boyfriend (JR Esposito), and all the while her mother’s ghost is heckling and advising from the side-lines.

The play begins as the mother starts to write her novel and ends the second the daughter finishes it. But a simple plot summary does no justice to the hilarity or touches of deep thought present in every scene. From the opening announcements that read as a romance novel (‘they held hands in the dark…they muted their cell phones…’) to the final note (No spoilers, but I think the cast would agree it ends pretty ‘happily muthaf*cking after’) Light’s Off, Eyes Closed comes at you a laugh-a-minute and leaves each scene with cliffhangers that keep you wanting more.

The stage is effectively divided into a raised level juxtaposed with a lower stage. The raised level is where we see the fantasy scenes of the mother’s ghost and the romance’s characters (Carro and Kobielus again, delightfully playing off their range and *ahem* passion). On the lower stage, the complications of real life make things, well, complicated. As the play goes on, the audience sees Jane’s journey from resisting the fantasy world to embracing it as a playground to figure things out in her own life. She is cynical enough for the most skeptical audience member to relate to, and her change of heart isn’t about loving romance, it’s about needing a narrative to connect this big shapeless thing called life. The need for this fantasy world, explored in a touching mother-daughter scene, is the real heart of this play. It doesn’t matter what fantasy we indulge in, it seems to say, so long as we have something that lets us escape from the real world and find meaning in it at the same time.

Director Meredith Berg is to be commended for keeping the action tight and making sure the actors hit every note spot-on. She does a lot with a minimalistic set and lighting, which give the play a slightly unpolished and ‘small theater’ feel that only makes the quality of the script and acting more outstanding. My only criticism was that the audience was often left sitting in the dark for what seemed like ages during scene changes—hopefully this will get cleaner as the production goes on.

It’s rare to find a play with the irreverent humor, nuanced characters, wicked pacing, and deep heart of Lights Off, Eyes Closed. Thank you, Sky Pilot Theatre.

Lights Off, Eyes Closed is performed Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 7:00 pm, and runs through April 29th, 2012.

T.U. Studios is located at 10943 Camarillo St. North Hollywood CA 91602

Ticket prices: $20.00 general admission, group rates available for 10 or more.

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