|By Ann Haskins
[Note: Since the playwright is the founder of Stage Raw, the reviewer is not part of the Stage Raw staff. Ann has written about theater and dance for LA Weekly — at a time when Steven Leigh Morris was not the Editor — along with Cultural Weekly, and L.A. Dance Chronicle, as well as for radio stations KCRW, KUSC, and KJAZZ.]
With its double entendre title, Red Ink references both the common accounting description of debt and journalism’s practice of editing articles. Both types of red ink come into play as this new work sharply tackles the institutional and personal travails confronting newspapers and those who work in the field. The action swings from satire to sacrifice with poignant moments and a surprising number of chuckles, as Jerome (Leo Marks), the editor of an alternative weekly newspaper, struggles to hold on to his increasingly shredded integrity and deteriorating sanity.
Playwright Steven Leigh Morris is on his home turf with the subject of alternative newspapers. He was an editor at LA Weekly during the glory years that brought its restaurant reviewer Jonathan Gold a Pulitzer prize. Morris was also there during some not-so-glory years when the paper was acquired in circumstances similar to what confronts Jerome when his New York alternative weekly, The Herald, is acquired by new owners. Despite promises of continuity and integrity, Jerome finds himself propelled on a roller coaster ride as corporate number-crunchers prioritize servicing the debt of the paper’s acquisition. Jerome is forced to cut staff and compromise content in pursuit of often illusory plans for new income.
As the audience settles in on three sides of the stage area, Jerome and his red pen are actively editing already printed pages of his newspaper. The first character to speak (Steven Culp) confirms that we are in a mental institution where Jerome is now a patient. When an outburst prompts a sedating injection, what follows is presented as “drama therapy,” a suggested curative in which other mental patients portray the individuals in Jerome’s life and work, recreating the events that led to his current state.
The device of mental patients performing theatre may well be a nod to Peter Weiss’s classic Marat/Sade (The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade). However, Morris and director Nike Doukas make the device their own with strong help from the excellent six-member cast who at the press opening were mostly note perfect as they shifted through the different keys of their various persona. From the hopscotching petulant adult who thinks she is a five-year-old, actress Jocelyn Towne returns as a manipulative corporate account manager and later bourrées through the action as a recently-hired dance writer who favors tutus at work. Peter Van Norden’s slow shambler has a penchant for shoplifting snack food but slyly inhabits his turns as the villainous new owner who only pays lip service to Jerome’s commitment to journalism while working toward funding his time on Puerta Vallarta’s beaches. Van Norden also has a touching scene as a famous, older classical music writer whom Jerome agrees to fire to cut costs. Tracey A. Leigh nails the emotional exhaustion of Jerome’s neglected and betrayed wife, but has her most delicious moment as a patient with a penchant for hitting her husband with plates (but is “getting better”), who sagely notes that Jerome is more interested in getting his theatre therapy than joining the others tending to a patient injured by a bicycle. Michelle Bonebright-Carter brings weary patience to Jerome’s daughter, and particularly impresses as a poised young writer documenting her frustrations with a misogynistic male editor. Culp deserves attention for not drawing attention in his various, often pivotal roles, shifting from the orderly to a mysterious white knight to overbearing news editor. Unquestionably Marks has the most difficult task, always portraying the same person but at different points in time as Jerome moves from his competent remembered self through his frenetic mental deterioration. Marks manages to suggest lingering questions about whether what he is showing is real or whether it was, and perhaps still is, some or all in his fractured mind.
The program notes that the play is dedicated to the original director Dan Bonnell who suffered a massive brain hemorrhage during a 2017 pre-production meeting. In addition to Doukas’s direction, the choreographer Cate Caplin also deserves a nod for her ballet moves and particularly her sexy, possibly first-of-its-kind budget negotiation tango.
Red Ink has a lot of moving parts and the few moments that seemed unintentionally out of sync are all things that likely will mesh more cleanly as the play settles in. Among a few plot points that jarred a bit, it is puzzling why Jerome insists the owner fire him. Other than vague references to the loss of severance pay, it is unclear why Jerome doesn’t simply quit since he is miserable, his wife has already left him, and he has little to lose. Why not just resign? That question added to thoughts about whether and how much of the reenactment was true or just another aspect of Jerome’s mental deterioration. Leaving the theater, I initially felt that the conclusion was hopeful, if not happily ever after. But replaying in my mind the final moments with Jerome’s reunion with his estranged wife and then his daughter joining the couple under a warm light, I wondered if that moment was not an ending, but another Jerome-imagined salvation.
Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village; Sat., 8 p.m. (except Feb. 1); Sat., 4 p.m. (Feb. 1 only); Sun., 4 p.m.; Mon., 8 p.m.; through Feb. 10. (800) 838-3006 or https://playwrightsarena.org/. Running time: 100 minutes without intermission.