In this new age of Hamilton, it seems duels are on the brain. Rules of Seconds, a world premiere play written by John Pollono and presented by the Latino Theater Company and The Temblors, transports us back to the 19th century, when people literally lived and died by the rules of duels, relying on this barbaric code to settle even the most minor of disputes. Directed by Obie Award-winner Jo Bonney, this darkly funny play is entertaining throughout, building to an exciting (and violent) climax.
The play begins in 1855 Boston, where we meet matriarch Martha Leeds (Amy Brenneman) and her kindhearted son Nathaniel, nicknamed “Wings” (Matthew Elkins), who has what seems to be an unspecified mental illness they try to keep hidden from the public. They are preparing to sell their family business to Walter Brown (Jamie Harris), a formidable tycoon and one of the most important men in Boston, but the meeting goes terribly awry when a nervous Nathaniel accidentally spills tea on Mr. Brown’s favorite boots. Nathaniel and his mother are horrified when Mr. Brown challenges him to a duel, knowing he does not have the temperament to survive such a violent confrontation. This prompts Nathaniel to enlist his estranged brother, James (Josh Helman), who has a great deal of personal experience with duels, to be his second, much to their mother’s chagrin. As the Leeds brothers prepare for the duel, years of deadly secrets, all of which have been leading up to this extreme confrontation, come to the surface.
The proceedings are guided by a narrator (Ron Bottitta), who takes a moment between scenes to remind the audience of various points from the code of dueling—the ten duel commandments, if you will. The cast of characters was rounded out by Bonnie (understudy Andrew Lees at the performance attended) and Dyett (Damu Malik), members of Mr. Brown’s staff, Senor Carranza (Leandro Cano), Mr. Brown’s loyal second, Dr. Chang (Feodor Chin), who initially clashes with James but ultimately agrees to help the Leeds brothers at the duel, and Hannah (Jen Pollono), who has a complicated history with James but now also works for Mr. Brown. Many of the actors are very recognizable from prior roles both on stage and on screen, and the performances do not disappoint.
The staging is rather simple, with several scenes taking place on a fairly empty stage. Pollono’s script is sharp and funny with quite a few tricks and reveals up its sleeve. The way the information, particularly the backstory, is dispersed is expert, with tensions rising steadily throughout, all leading to a confrontation that is as bloody as you may expect. While act one may leave you asking a lot of questions about the character relationships and why Mr. Brown harbors so strong a grudge against Nathaniel’s family that he would have such an overreaction to a mildly stained pair of boots, rest assured all of your questions will be answered. Act two begins with a flashback scene that finally explains the devastating events that led to James’s estrangement from his family and the beginning of their financial and emotional downfall, bringing the darkest of family secrets to light. The final ten minutes are the best the play has to offer, with everything in both the structure and the plot coming together marvelously.
While the impressive costumes (Stephanie Kerley Schwartz) and the subject matter evoke the period piece feel rather well, some of the actors spoke and carried themselves in a way that felt oddly modern, which was perhaps an intentional choice to demonstrate the timelessness of the themes. The events that unfold may seem farfetched, but it’s all to make a rather astute point about the more barbaric tendencies of human nature, a concept you will see nicely illustrated if you pay close attention to the curtain at the conclusion of the play. Ultimately, the Latino Theater Company and The Temblors have produced a highly enjoyable piece of theater that will ensure you’ll be extra careful the next time you hand someone a cup of hot liquid—especially if any expensive footwear is around.
Rules of Seconds runs at the Los Angeles Theater Center in downtown LA through April 15th. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets start at $22 and can be purchased at http://thelatc.org. For more information on The Temblors, the first self-producing playwrights collective in LA, click here.