Dinner parties in plays never go well, do they? This theory certainly applies to Mutual Philanthropy, a new play by Karen Rizzo currently being presented by Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA. A tight 75 minutes, it tells the story of two very different couples who come together for a classy meal, which quickly spirals into a complicated web of strings-attached business offers and propositions.
Ester (Xochiti Romero) is Mexican and grew up in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. She dreams of opening her own bakery someday, but for now works as a chef’s assistant to make ends meet. Her husband, Lee (Mark Carapezza) is a talented artist who is staying home to take care of the kids while waiting for his big break. When we meet them, Ester is distraught Lee told the babysitter he would pay her $12 an hour instead of their agreed upon $9, since it is clear every penny spent is a source of stress in their financial situation.
They arrive for dinner at the modern, immaculate home of Charles (James Macdonald) and Michelle (Brea Bee), fellow parents from their school whom they’re not used to spending time with sans kids. Charles is a wealthy investment banker and philanthropist. Michelle, the type of woman who wears chic head-to-toe white and gray with perfect nail polish and has mastered keeping up perfect appearances, reckons herself a philanthropist as well, although she and her husband clearly do not always see eye to eye.
Ester and Lee begin the evening hoping Charles may want to buy Lee’s best sculpture, “Reclining Man,” for a modest sum of several thousand dollars, which would be practically life-changing to them. It turns out Charles and Michelle have much bigger plans for their “friends”—they see them as a potential rags to riches project, a charity case in need of their incredible good will. Obviously, this becomes quite a point of contention, as does the obvious sexual interest Charles has in Ester and Michelle in Lee.
Directed by Dan Bonnell, the taut piece never drags and makes good use of the small space at the Atwater Village Theatre. I found the play’s overall structure to be a bit unnecessarily disjointed. While the action is more or less continuous and unfolds in one set over the course of one evening, the main plot is often interrupted by little, mini scenes—of Charles practicing salsa dancing, or of Michelle watching her cat’s exploits out the window. I think it would have flowed much better as one continuous scene, without distraction.
Mutual Philanthropy reminded me quite a bit of a few other modern plays. God of Carnage is another 4-person play featuring two sets of parents brought together by the common denominator of their children in an afternoon that devolves into chaos. Good People explores similar themes of ethnicity and social class. Disgraced also features an artist as a main character and culminates in another disastrous dinner party between two couples. On that note, Mutual Philanthropy didn’t feel like anything I haven’t seen before, but it was well-written and well-acted and featured truly interesting, fully realized characters that made it very enjoyable to watch.
Rizzo’s script is very smart, with some memorable, funny lines—such as when Ester describes Charles’s particular allure as that of a “sexy plantation owner.” All four performances were fantastic and impressive. Romero’s Ester is by far the most down to earth, relatable character of the bunch, and her mix of hope and practicality was spot on. As Lee, Carapezza nailed righteous indignation and the somewhat short-fused, passionate temperament of an artist. Bee’s Michelle was a delight to watch, particularly when the cracks hiding deep beneath her perfect veneer began to show. Finally, as Charles, Macdonald was appropriately sly and just the right amount of creepy.
My only other complaint is that I am not sure I understood what the ending was trying to say, and found myself wishing for a clearer resolution. That being said, this play made for a smart, intelligent afternoon at the theater, and I expect to see much more from Rizzo in the years to come.
Mutual Philanthropy runs at the Atwater Village Theatre through September 25th. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets cost $19.95 in advance or $28 at the door, and advance tickets can be purchased at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2581024.