If you watched only the opening scenes of Forever Bound, a play written by Steve Apostolina now in its world premiere at the Atwater Village Theatre in Los Angeles, you would likely never guess the turns the story eventually takes. Presented by Sankalpa Productions, it is one of those shows that is difficult to discuss without revealing some of its secrets. But despite some surprises, the end product is one that feels overdone, and certainly not as funny as its billing as a “dark comedy” may lead you to believe.
Edmund (French Stewart) is a nerdy, down-on-his-luck book scout living in Los Angeles. A book scout scours used bookstores for hidden treasures they can then mark up and sell to the highest bidder, often a tedious process. But with the number of used bookstores left in the world decreasing, Edmund is struggling to make ends meet, dodging bill collectors and approaching eviction from his cockroach-infested apartment. One day, his friend Shep (Apostolina), a fellow book scout whose business practices are a bit less above board than Edmund’s, happens to witness a mysterious man paying an exorbitant amount of cash for a rare copy of Leaves of Grass. Shep gets an idea—what if he and Edmund break into the man’s house, steal the book, and resell it to fix Edmund’s financial problems? Edmund is at first horrified by the suggestion, but quickly comes around when he fails to come up with a better option.
Meanwhile, in scenes that unfold on a separate area of the stage, we see a young woman (Emily Goss) and an older man (Rob Nagle) discussing literature. Something seems to be off—their dynamic is oddly formal, and the woman speaks with a cadence and vocabulary that sounds like a Victorian novel. It takes at least a third of the play for the connection between the two storylines to be revealed, and I advise you stop reading here if you wish to avoid spoilers. Turns out, this man is the owner of the copy of Leaves of Grass, and the young woman is his hostage, held captive in his soundproof basement. When Edmund breaks in to steal the book he discovers and frees her, horrified to learn she has been there since she was a small child and was told the outside world was uninhabitable due to some cataclysmic event.
Directed by Ann Hearn Tobolowsky, Forever Bound attempts to strike a very difficult tone. While Edmund and Shep’s conversations are full of witty one-liners and physical humor such as taping cockroaches to the wall in hopes of horrifying building management into action, the other half of the show is horribly dark. The story of the woman, who names herself Rosalind after revealing she was kidnapped so young that she does not know her given name, is correctly never played for laughs, but her predicament understandably sucks any sense of lightheartedness from the play.
Apostolina cites American Buffalo and Pygmalion as influences, and Forever Bound is in fact a mash-up of sorts of these two story prototypes. But despite the clever dialogue and twists that will likely take some audience members by surprise, the play ultimately feels like just that—a combination of two things we have seen many times before. Each of the two storylines could easily be its own play, and it’s only in their coexistence that some semblance of originality is found. The performances are very strong, particularly those of Stewart and Nagle, but the characters as written never quite rise above archetypes. Edmund is another well-meaning yet bumbling nice guy who falls into something crazy when things go awry in his life. Shep at least has some surprises in his backstory that are presented as a series of nicely paced reveals, but is still just the slightly more unsavory foil to his unlikely friend.
As for Rosalind, there have been so many versions of her character and situation presented in media, from very serious films like Room to the lighthearted television series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Because it does not feel fresh, it is tiring and a bit disappointing to see the only female character in the piece, a survivor of rape and abuse, be both victimized by and rescued by men. Perhaps aware of this issue, the playwright gives her agency in the play’s final moments, but considering the very short amount of time that has passed, that she would be able to largely overcome her depth of trauma and see reason as quickly as she does feels unrealistic. Rosalind has the potential to be an interesting character, and it is a shame that one of her primary functions is to provide the male lead, Edmund, with an arc and a sense of purpose in life. While fans of literature will enjoy the many smart nods to classic books, the whole of Forever Bound is ultimately less than the sum of its parts.
Forever Bound runs at the Atwater Village Theatre through June 16th. The running time is 90 minutes, no intermission. Performances are Mondays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased here.