Breaking & Entering @ Zombie Joe’s Underground

Are there any more enthusiastic audiences than the ones found at Zombie Joe’s Underground? I doubt it. And Colin Mitchell’s “Breaking & Entering” is well worth the display. It is clever, funny, engrossing, but, most of all, it offers L.A. theatregoers the opportunity to gather in some coffee shop afterward and argue over what they just watched. It’s the best of all possible worlds: Rashomon without having to deal with subtitles.

This play has layers and twists enough to confound while still continuously enticing, and the audience, like Alice with her rabbit, will gleefully follow Mitchell down whatever rabbit hole he leads us into. Writer W.J. Trumbull (Matthew Sklar), a Salinger-esque character with a pinch of Kerouac and a large heaping of Ambrose Bierce’s bitterness, is happily ensconced in his upstate New York hermitage until the night that his security system crashes, allowing an intruder to breach the walls of his isolation.

And there the mystery for both Trumbull and the audience begins, as Mitchell keeps both guessing as to who it is that has scaled the author’s defenses to confront him.

Milly Smith (Meredith Bishop) claims to have only been standing outside his lair, as is her habit, fixating on her favorite author, when the blackout of his security grid presented her with the chance of a lifetime, which she impulsively seized, explaining, “I panicked with initiative.”

But Mitchell’s star struck admirer is a shape changer who ebbs and flows and finally slithers; obsessive fan, driven would-be author, murderous stalker, determined avenger or creative doppelganger…each confronts the reclusive writer, who finds his words and his life hurled at him like daggers from a deranged knife thrower.

There is both poetry and eloquence to Mitchell’s writing, as well as intelligence. Where all those qualities merge is found in the extracts from the supposed first and only novel by Trumbull.

Now generally when the product of either a literary or artistic giant is pressed on one in either film or theatre, one should steel themselves for disappointment. Consider the words in Anonymous, Moulin Rouge, or Becoming Jane, or the artworks featured in Hour of the Wolf, New York Stories – Life Lessons, and The Horse’s Mouth. (Yes, I know the works of John Bratby are used in the last one, but I’ve still seen better from first semester art students.)

Mitchell is clever enough to offer sparse samplings of T.W.’s masterpiece and talented enough to pull them off.

“Attack the day gently child, it means you no harm.”

For my money that holds it’s own with such classic opening lines as:

“A screaming comes across the sky.”

“Once upon a time there was a Martian by the name of Michael Valentine Smith.”

“For a long time, I went to bed early.”

We believe T.W.’s masterpiece might be masterful.

Now those who follow my babbling about the L.A. stage scene will be aware that Zombie Joe’s Underground is one of my favorite theatres, where you’ll find a boundless creative capacity housed in a pocket-sized venue, and “Breaking & Entering” gives ample proof of that.

As the septuagenarian novelist, Matthew Sklar is far too young for the role and the Max Factor grey in his hair doesn’t hide this. However his talent unquestionably does, and within moments of his appearance you accept the reality of his performance.

Katherine Canipe as the ethereal trespasser is another matter. Hers is an enigmatic presence that is mystifying to both Trumbull and the audience. But while they may be kept guessing, the actor must be firm as to the reality they’re portraying. A certain vagueness seemed to hinder Canipe’s characterization in this regard. But such nitpicking aside hers was an otherwise solid performance which kept apace of a demanding role.

Jerry Chappell and Jason Britt are spot on as the Wheeler and Woolsey of fate’s “warp and woof” of which all destinies are woven. While their comic presence perhaps provides the Clotho and Lachesis to Canipe’s Atropos, it will most assuredly, in addition to their play by play of a 25 inning ballgame, contribute to the after show discussion as to what is the separation between creator and creation and where does artist end and art begin.

Sebastian Muñoz succeeds in seamlessly fitting the meditations of Mitchell’s play to the confines of the house. In doing so his direction is both sharp and sagacious as he manages a stage abundant with two divergent scene settings, as well as a myriad of musings, a bellowing conflict, and a cataract of potential interpretations, never once permitting a sense of clutter to overwhelm the moment.

Superior writing.

Extraordinary acting.

Superb direction.

Theatre most unique.

Put them all together and you have Zombie Joe’s Underground.