In playwright Carter Lewis’ enjoyable but uneven new play “Echo Location,” a number of ideas have been thrown against the wall. What has stuck are a forced comedy and moving drama about four characters whose stories, during the play’s mostly easygoing 80 minutes, don’t really coalesce as much as they co-exist through shifting tones and sensibilities.
Set over two days in a modern-day Massachusetts backyard, Lewis’ play features an involved backstory of family relations and guilt that continually weighs it down. While the tragic past informs what happens in the present, there is murkiness about what exactly happened when that never quite clears up.
The present, though, has the affable feel of good people going through awkward situations that can and will be worked out. There’s a jokey, sitcom vibe in the early minutes that turns darker and more compelling by the play’s second half, though neither half is completely satisfying.
Carrying the biggest load is Kurt Johnson’s troubled Benjamin Rindell, a college English teacher and former novelist. He published one novel that fictionally dealt with a period of his life while he took care of his drug-addicted sister until her sudden death. He’s written nothing since.
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Bendell, as he’s called by his fiancée, Emmy (Maya Lynne Robinson), loves language so much he often invents words to fit situations. There are a few clever exchanges between them around words that may or may not exist, and eventually the idea of making words to fit ideas crests in one of the play’s turning points.
Robinson’s calm Emmy anchors Johnson’s angst-driven Bendell as they prepare for their impeding wedding. Bendell has run afoul of Emmy’s ex-boyfriend Bluetooth (the sure Oge Agulue), a philosophical, part-time bookie. Bluetooth, whose name comes from a broken joke on Lewis’ part that doesn’t quite work, has grievances with Bendell, including the stealing of Emmy’s affections and the subsequent accidental death of his cat Gary.
Mostly through Agulue’s savvy, confident presence, the character adds a visceral conflict to Bendell’s esoteric concerns. The impromptu wedding party is completed by the 15-year-old-going-on-30 interloper Allison (Sarah Grodsky), who may or may not be Bendell’s daughter. The title of the play comes up in a awkward forced conversation between Bendell and Allison, but how it actually fits with the play is anyone’s guess.
Director Buck Busfield skillfully navigates Lewis’ choppy tonal shifts, and his cast make the unlikely quartet sympathetic and palatable.
Lewis creates a dilemma that doesn’t have an easy solution, and to his credit, he resists taking an easy way out even as he crafts an unlikely one.
What: B Street Theatre presents the world premiere of Carter Lewis’ “Echo Location” with Kurt Johnson, Maya Lynne Robinson, Oge Agulue and Alison Macy.
When: Continues 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays. Through Feb. 28.
Where: B Street Theatre Mainstage, 2711 B St., Sacramento
Tickets: $23-$35; student $15
Information: 916-443-5300; www.bstreettheatre.org
Time: 80 minutes with no intermission.