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The Gift Opens at Geffen Playhouse in Westwood

02/08/2013 12:48 pm ET | Updated Apr 10, 2013

The Gift

I was a fierce fan of a TV show called Dawson's Creek during its six season run some years ago, probably because I adored the winsome Katie Holmes, who played Joey (prior to her Tom Cruise misadventure). I was reminded of that last night when I visited the wonderful Geffen Playhouse (10776 Le Conte Ave., Westwood, 310-208-6500), for the lead actor, James Van Der Beek, from that show, was one of the four stars in the new show there. The Gift had its American premiere, and it was a doozy. Fascinating, controversial, mostly excellently acted... and exhausting. My date and I exited to the lobby in a deep discussion of the meaning of that strange, provocative ending... and found many people in the lobby engaged in the same activity. The new work is by an Australian playwright, Joanna Murray-Smith, who previously had a production here of the bitter comedy, The Female of the Species. Tonight's director was the acclaimed Maria Aitken, who I am told is a specialist in the work of Noel Coward, and I am sure she was striving to emulate that great writer here. No such luck.

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Jaime Ray Newman and James Van Der Beek play the younger couple.

The problem reviewing this play is that the ending is so startling that we cannot reveal its denouncement without spoiling it for those of you who will choose to see it. The plot is simple: when two couples meet while vacationing at a ritzy tropical thousand-dollar a night resort, they instantly transition from strangers to the best of friends despite their almost comical differences. The older couple -- Ed (Chris Mulkey) and Sadie (Kathy Baker) have been married for 25 years, and are childless. He is a bluff self-made wealthy manufacturer and she is a flighty, talkative, somewhat disaffected women who "shops." The younger couple have been married for eight years, and have a 4-year-old daughter, Eleanor, at home. They won this vacation in a raffle. He, Martin (James Van Der Beek) is a 'conceptual artist' on the verge of great success, and she, Chloe (Jaime Ray Newman) is a former journalist who reluctantly gave up her career for motherhood.

They all first bond at the bar drinking bottles of "Chateau Expensive." They plan a boat trip the following day, a storm arises and Ed falls off the boat and almost drowns, rescued by Martin, who brings him back from near-death. Despite Martin and Chloe's demurrals, the older couple offer to meet the younger ones in a year at their New York home and grant any reasonable wish they ask... a racehorse, a vacation, an apartment, whatever. The Geffen press notes describes the situation thusly:

When one seemingly inconsequential event throws both their lives into a tailspin, the couples find themselves wrestling with a moral dilemma -- while it's human nature to want what you don't have, is it unnatural to abandon something that you do? This new work draws audiences in with a beguiling hilarity that gives way to an unsettling twist, posing searing questions rather than providing comfortable answers.

Or as the playwright said in an interview: "Most of my plays are about moral boundaries and the human compulsion to transgress." A perfect description of this work.

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Emmy Award-winning actress Kathy Baker plays the older woman.

In this play, Murray-Smith tackles the anxieties of marriage, parenthood, and creative life. In the second act, Ed and Sadie recount their past year and how, rejuvenated by his almost-death, they have discovered art. They have flown from capital to capital hungrily consuming whatever they find. Ed even seems to have the 'jargon' down pat. He talks about Richard Wilson's 20:50, an art installation in which an entire room is flooded with black oil, and has taken to heart Martin's exhortation to "suspend doubt." Martin has finally achieved success with his sculpture exhibited at the Tate of a holographic child inside a glass box.

Yet we see the narcissistic younger couple, ground down by everyday life, envy Ed and Sadie's childless irresponsibility... Chloe plaintifully desires "a dishwasher." Then it's the turn of the younger couple to make their request... which we can't describe herein, but it's horrific. These two come off finally as pretentious and self-servingly blind. Woven into the plot are arguments about parenthood and especially art, the tension between domesticity and creativity. I could not determine if the writer was being satirical, ironic, or sentimental, probably all three.

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Chris Mulkey (center) brilliantly plays the older man.

The Geffen smartly has a series of events during the run of the show which include intellectual, thought-provoking post-show Q&A at Talk Back Tuesdays, a scintillating one-of-a-kind after party at Girls Night Out, a cultural happy hour with Lounge Fridays, and complimentary wine tastings during Wine Down Sundays.

I am going out on a limb by commenting that I think one actor, Chris Mulkey, is superb as the crass, materialistic older guy who has a transformation. The two younger actors are more than adequate in their roles, especially in the last dramatic scene when they make their unusual request of the donors. The talented Emmy-award winning actress plays the older woman too much for easy laughs and flippant comments with a lack of subtlety, which is disturbing. Do I recommend that you see this show? Of course, for we all feel the need for more theatre of all kinds in this city..., and the Geffen has been in the forefront of providing the best shows we get. I promise that you will be exiting the theatre arguing the ending as we did... and that is The Gift from these good people. Ticket prices range from $47 to $77, and are available in-person at the Geffen boxoffice, via phone at 310-208-5454 or online here.

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