When we think only of our­selves

Two short plays by An­thony Minghella, per­formed in Venice, cap­ture the mood of the 1980s — and per­haps today too.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Philip Bran­des cal­en­dar@la­times.com

Al­though the late An­thony Minghella is remembered pri­mar­ily for his film di­rec­tion and screen­plays (“The English Pa­tient,” “Cold Moun­tain”), he also had a deep affin­ity with the in­ti­mate the­atri­cal tra­di­tions of char­ac­ter-based drama.

Pa­cific Res­i­dent The­atre of­fers a rare op­por­tu­nity to ap­pre­ci­ate Minghella’s play­writ­ing prow­ess with a pair of lit­tle-known, one-act ra­dio plays — “Cig­a­rettes and Choco­late” and “Hang Up” — first broad­cast over the BBC in the 1980s.

Hon­or­ing their ori­gin as works in­tended to be heard, direc­tor Michael Peret­zian (Minghella’s long­time friend and U.S. agent) em­ploys an ap­pro­pri­ately min­i­mal­ist “staged reading” pre­sen­ta­tion, equip­ping the ac­tors with lit­tle more than scripts on mu­sic stands and oc­ca­sional am­bi­ent sound cues.

Set amid the Ron­ald Rea­gan-Mar­garet Thatcher un­fet­tered-free-mar­ket era, Minghella’s sharply ob­served por­traits of self-in­dul­gent young London ur­ban­ites bris­tle with quirky hu­man­ity, mor­dant wit and deep in­sight into ev­ery­day ex­pe­ri­ence — closer in spirit to Minghella’s break­out film, “Truly, Madly, Deeply,” than to his later cin­e­matic block­busters.

No-frills pro­duc­tion val­ues not­with­stand­ing, Peret­zian and his first-rate ensem­ble of Pa­cific Res­i­dent com­pany veter­ans ren­der Minghella’s pre­cisely in­flected di­a­logue with pol­ished author­ity — par­tic­u­larly when it comes to the fail­ures of com­mu­ni­ca­tion that fig­ure promi­nently in both pieces.

“Hang Up,” the shorter, more nar­rowly fo­cused leadin, de­picts a fal­ter­ing tele­phone con­ver­sa­tion be­tween a sus­pi­cious lover (Michael Bal­s­ley) and his girl­friend (Jeanette Driver, fill­ing in for Molly Schaf­fer) as their re­la­tion­ship dis­in­te­grates in lack of trust.

“Cig­a­rettes and Choco­late” de­picts the con­fu­sion that re­sults when a so­cia­ble young woman (Marwa Bern­stein) abruptly de­cides to stop speak­ing or re­spond­ing to oth­ers.

As the peo­ple close to her spec­u­late ob­ses­sively about the rea­son for her si­lence, their be­wil­dered guesses run a dizzy­ing tonal gamut: Her ap­pallingly cad­dish lover (Matt Letscher) thinks she dis­cov­ered he’s been cheat­ing on her with their mar­ried friend (Ur­sula Brooks); her amus­ing chat­ter­box bestie (Ta­nia Getty) at­tributes the with­drawal to envy of her own im­pend­ing child­birth; a mil­que­toast (Jaxon Duff Gwillim) with a crush pa­thet­i­cally backpedals from the love let­ter he thinks drove her away.

Their ex­pla­na­tions share an in­sis­tence on mak­ing her de­ci­sion all about them­selves.

When the woman’s haunt­ingly poetic in­ter­nal mono­logue links her re­lease from the weight of words to so­cial con­science, it’s an in­con­ceiv­able no­tion for them.

Be­sides the fine per­for­mances, the strik­ing thing about th­ese plays is their pre­scient di­ag­no­sis of a pe­cu­liarly modern type of nar­cis­sism born in the ab­sence of shared sac­ri­fice, with no sense of be­ing part of some­thing greater than the pur­suit of self-in­ter­est.

Vi­tor Martins

“CIG­A­RETTES and Choco­late,” with Matt Letscher and Marwa Bern­stein, is one of two ra­dio plays at Pa­cific Res­i­dent The­atre.

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