West Of Central: extraordi-noir

Pillsbury House Theater, through Oct 14

WEST OF CENTRAL. Photo by Rich Ryan.

Austene Van makes one heck of a good private dick and Christina Ham’s new play at the Pillsbury House Theatre makes the most of it. Ham’s noir-ish West of Central has a complex plot that involves Van and real estate mogul, Sid Franklin (the ever-excellent Stephen Yoakim) who makes his money cheating black people by red lining and block busting in 1960’s Los Angeles.

Sid Franklin’s daughter, June (Olivia Wilusz), knows too much about her father’s dealings. June has opted out and fled to Watts, the very community her father sucks money out of. Van’s character, detective Thelma Higgins, gets pulled into the case when someone tries to plug young June Franklin when she visits Higgins’ office looking for a protection. The plot thickens when the protection the young woman is looking for is in the form of Thelma’s husband who may or may not have had an affair with June.

Ham uses this cat and mouse—or in this case, cats and mice—plot to make significant points about real estate improprieties and their devastating effect on the black community. One of the best parts of West of Central is how well Ham is able to layer in facts about this discriminatory practice without seeming overly didactic.

Underlying the theme of real estate disenfranchisement is another intriguing theme: that black people, in order to survive, often need to play both sides. They are employed by the very people who are exploiting them when at the same time they are trying to break out of the system of injustice. This keeps the play operating at a higher level than a simple noir murder-mystery-in-trench-coats-with-a-jazz-sound-track.

Unfortunately opening night had its problems. There were so many flubbed lines by a cast with fine credentials that it led me to wonder if the play wasn’t undergoing extensive rewrites during rehearsals. Director Hayley Finn doesn’t do the show many favors with her clunky blocking and cluttered stage business. For example, actors nervously pour drink after drink of scotch when a single, skillfully swilled glass—a la Humphrey Bogart—is less distracting and adds far more tension. Furniture is placed on stage without consideration of sight lines and actors have their backs to the audience for long stretches of time. (They could all take a lesson in this from Van who never lets the audience not see her expressive face.)

These things can all be worked out with Ham’s good script as a base. If the play itself has a flaw it is in the ending which doesn’t wrap up the various threads of the plot. This is unfortunate but can be fixed in time for future productions.

Finally, praise must go Aimee K. Bryant, very good in her supporting role of Hazel Tyler, and to costumer Amber Brown, for dressing the cast in clothes that perfectly fit the period right down to narrow ties and “Bonwit Teller” suits.

Please visit Mari’s personal website: marionswittenbreer.com



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