The Misadventures of Rick the Strangler, running through Feb. 10 at the Electric Lodge in Venice, focuses on a hit man struggling to properly divide his attention between his career, his prostitute girlfriend and his beloved dog, Amos. And get this: it’s a comedy!
Written and directed by USC alumnus Brian Peterson, this play has it all: blood, severed fingers, betrayal, a sequence straight out of a blaxploitation film and even a musical number. Peterson’s script strikes an impressive balance between shocking darkness, Will Ferrell-esque jokes and heartfelt sincerity. At times, the liberal use of the F-word may seem juvenile or excessive, but this is quickly made up for by ridiculous one-liners such as, “I take 3-minute power naps with one eye at a time,” or “Sherlock? Apparently he’s some badass detective from Brit-land.” In addition, Peterson’s dialogue for Rick (especially about Amos) demonstrates that a dark comedy is perfectly capable of emotional depth and that even a hit man can deserve the audience’s empathy. Peterson’s expertise comes through in the carefully constructed climax — it’s an adrenaline rush accompanied by a bevy of emotion that will leave viewers reeling.
This production owes the bulk of its success to Jonathan Brooks, who is an absolute spark plug as Rick. It’s sort of mind-boggling that this is his L.A. theatre debut — this portrayal should earn him plenty of future roles. His commitment to Rick’s manic energy is unwavering; though the plot can be a little unbelievable, Brooks never is. In dealing with his dog or less-than-classy girlfriend, he is gentle and earnest (even if he has trouble saying “I love you”), but when it comes to the cops or his underhanded boss, he yells until his neck veins throb and his face turns crimson. He even shows considerable charm as a dancer and singer.
As Rick’s girlfriend Tina, Irina Costa is appropriately bimbo-esque and carries out her main objective — looking like a hooker — with poise. Just as Rick experiences, the audience won’t have any trouble finding Tina attractive, but falling in love with her might be a little hard. After all, she is rather unlikable: she’s a headstrong dimwit who nearly destroys Rick’s life because of her hatred and jealousy of Amos. She also gets a little too whiny with Rick — didn’t she know what she was getting into when she started dating a guy named Rick the Strangler? Costa does have a few bright moments in the play, however, such as when she’s trying to convince everyone that she has quit prostitution and become a doctor: She enters in a naughty nurse Halloween costume.
The real love of Rick’s life, Amos, is brought to life by James Zimmerman, who walks upright and wears a dog suit and painted black nose a la the titular character on FX’s Wilfred. In the program, Zimmerman acknowledges the director’s dog, Enzo, for “being a constant inspiration during the rehearsal process.” Zimmerman must have studied canine behavior extensively, because he absolutely nails his part. For the majority of the play, his lines are limited to one-word exclamations: “No!” “What?!” “Hello!” His behavior reflects the extreme single-mindedness of pet dogs; he’s either completely focused on his food, on watching Rick, on protecting the house or just contentedly staring off into space — there is no in-between.
This is why it comes as a remarkably pleasant surprise when Amos halts the action at the height of the play’s climax and delivers a lucid monologue in full sentences about the nature of the relationship between man and dog. It’s full of insight into the triumph of love over obstacles despite imperfections, and Zimmerman steals the show.
Also delightful are performances by Trip Davis as Lenny, a geekier John Cusack-type with the voice of Stewie from Family Guy who happens to be another hitman; Rhomeyn Johnson as Mr. Paul, Rick’s scary boss who can really rock a purple suit; and especially Michael Geary as Duane, Tina’s bumbling rookie cop older brother, who possesses stellar comedic timing and rightfully earns most of the audience’s laughs.
A final noteworthy aspect of the production is the set, designed by Peterson, Davis and Antoine Villaume. The first act of the play takes place in Rick’s convincingly dingy apartment, replete with stained wallpaper and mismatched furniture. At the top of act two, the actors transform the space by folding the top half of the back wall down to reveal a painted to resemble a short brick wall that creates the rooftop setting for the rest of the scenes. It might seem like a simple change, but it makes the production design considerably more sophisticated.
Visiting the Electric Lodge is exciting in itself; just a block away from hipster-haven Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice, this solar-powered and eco-friendly arts space is full of Los Angeles’ trendiest folk, so be sure to look the part.
Rick the Strangler is funny enough to entertain you and complex enough to stay on the audience’s mind for days after the play has ended. And though the play is an offbeat misadventure, it’s also an experience well worth the time.