There are few better places to witness all the stereotypes Los Angeles has to offer than a Starbucks. Cafe Society, a new comedic play set in one of the ubiquitous coffee shops, examines our cultural obsession with technology and social media and how that is affected (or unaffected) by an actual real-life crisis.
Produced by Theatre Planners, written by Emmy Award-winner Peter Lefcourt and directed by his wife, Terri Hanauer, Cafe Society made its world premiere this past weekend as a guest production at the Odyssey Theatre. The scene is set the moment you enter the theater—the stage is decked out like a Starbucks, right down to the menu screens that are later used very effectively to display the characters’ various text messages, emails, screenplays, and incoming calls. The play is bursting with LA jokes and references that garnered a lot of laughs from the opening weekend crowd. The specific Starbucks in which the show is set is supposed to be on Pico, barely a mile from the Odyssey Theatre, and there were more references to LA culture than a Californians sketch.
Each of the characters fits a specific archetype, all of which I’ve certainly seen in my coffee shop visits. Jeff (Eric Wentz) is a pretentious screenwriter who boasts that his work is about “the human condition,” despite the fact that he hasn’t actually accomplished much of anything. Kari (Chandra Lee Schwartz) is an aspiring actress who carries around a duffel bag of outfits in case a last-minute audition comes up. Her closest relationship seems to be with her agent and she ignorantly complains about being passed over for roles because she’s “not ethnic enough.” Darnell (Donathan Walters) is the polite yet world-weary barista who somehow ended up in this job despite attending an Ivy League school. Marilyn (Susan Diol) is a Type A realtor who works 24/7 and orders her beverages at a specific temperature. Bob (Eric Myles Geller) is a smarmy finance man who is so obsessed with yelling at people over the phone that he forgets to treat the people he actually encounters like human beings. And then there’s a homeless man (Ian Patrick Williams) who is convinced he’s Anastasia and dresses as such. Yes, that would be the famous Russian Grand Duchess Anastasia (cue “Once Upon a December”).
Things start out fairly normally—Jeff is writing and schmoozing, Kari is changing between auditions and obsessively texting her agent, Darnell is overworked and humoring Anastasia, and Marilyn and Bob are on a blind date from a dating website called Bark.com. One of my favorite jokes from the show, Bark.com is a website where users post pictures of their dog instead of pictures of themselves. Their seemingly ordinary morning is turned upside down when a guy named Martin (Nick Cobey) takes everyone in the cafe hostage, claiming he has a bomb.
This entire construct reminds me a bit of a TV bottle episode, and works very well as a play—a high stakes, character-driven situation set in one location. Martin’s hostages are incredibly ignorant, but sadly they are not unrealistic. Everyone is so absorbed in their screens that even when they find themselves in the middle of a high-stakes situation they are not fully present. Jeff immediately starts thinking of what a good screenplay it would make and Kari and Marilyn are more concerned about their careers than their survival. The cast was excellent, striking a perfect balance of comedy and tension. If anything, the most underdeveloped character was Martin himself. Despite an illuminating conversation near the end of the play, I never felt I had a good grasp on his motivations. The humor was dark and almost a bit uncomfortable at times, but the 90-minute show maintained suspense until almost the very end.
I found some of the twists to be predictable, and the ending was a bit of a Hollywood cliche—but is that not the point? Underneath the laughs and the satire is a really solid message about being present, connecting with people face-to-face, and the risks of missing out on life by living in such a plugged-in society. There is also a lot of commentary on capitalism and large corporations, making me wonder how the PR team at Starbucks feels about this play’s existence. The reason I love theater is that it requires you to be completely present and in the moment, which has never felt more appropriate than while watching a play full of people who seem to have forgotten how to do just that. You might think twice about immediately pulling out your phone when the show ends—but you’ll do it anyway, probably to tell your friends about the funny and creative play you just saw.
Cafe Society runs at the Odyssey through October 11th with performances on Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons. Tickets range from $25-30 and are available at www.plays411.net/cafe.