Brilliant Lies (photo: SarahJayn Kemp)
Brilliant Lies is the type of play that will make you uncomfortable in a good way. It’s a dark comedy that pulls its darkness from the inkiest parts of the human condition, our most fallible urges and taboo crimes. At points, it is hard to distinguish whether the audience is laughing from humorous satisfaction or collective nervous giggling. With dialog that is weighted with content that is hard to hear, it is also the type of play that can devolve into a spastic cringe-fest when that dialog is spoken with a dose of cheesy inauthenticity. However, the actors in this production tempered their scandal, sarcasm, and silliness to just the right degree.
Taking place in the not-too-distant past — the tail end of the Clinton administration — scenes were cushioned in between snippets of ’90s music. There was clearly some thought put behind the selection, because the transitional music did more than just transition scene to scene. Listening to Sheryl Crow coo, “All I wanna do is have some fun,” once more, I felt as if I had been transitioned back to my angst-filled teenage days, when hearing Ms. Crow over the radio would get an eye roll from me and my fellow Doc Marten-wearing friends as we pretended not to be excited about the fact that the record store was getting a coffee shop next door. I still don’t like Crow, but I did appreciate the musical time warp. Likewise, I appreciated that none of the songs seemed too forced, save for Salt-N-Pepa‘s “Let’s Talk About Sex,” which seemed a little heavy-handed an opener for a play about sexual abuse and harassment. As someone whose personal musical tastes came alive during the grunge-laden, flannel-shirt-covered days of the ’90s, I was fan of Nirvana, Green Day, and Dinosaur Jr. None of them were included in this play, and I was grateful for that. Too many times have they been used as a cheap vehicle for capturing the zeitgeist of the cappuccino days in American history. Besides, I don’t think any of the voices in this play were big fans of MTV’s 120 Minutes (well, maybe Katy). It’s nice to see people work a little harder to capture the time and the essence of the characters being portrayed.
The actors were also true to the time. Riding in like three horsemen of the patriarchy, most of the male characters in this play fit nicely into post-Anita Hill America. Zanfer Ali played the formidable Gary, a corporate bro living in an era before the term “bro” was a thing. His interactions with HR representative Marion, played wonderfully by Diana Roman, are sometimes cringe-inducing and sometimes terrifying, but always on the mark. Gary is tempered by Dermot Durnin’s Vince, a corporate scotch-and-soda man, now stuck in time when it’s no longer considered good practice to drink scotch and soda at work. His biggest crime is being a bystander to Gary’s actions; he’s a lesser evil, a likable evil. He comes off as an older-uncle type who has lived a mostly good life, but doesn’t press others too hard to do the same. Conversely, there’s bloated Brian, played by Andrew Harris. A business failure and a drunk, Brian has big expectations of others, but ignores his own tattered shroud of decency. Harris’ delivery of Brian’s lines is grandiose in a good way, allowing him to be both a villain and a clown.
All the performances were believable and engaging, but the trio of siblings at the center of the story were outstanding. Understudy Deidre Rose played the lead role of party girl Susy. Rose portrayed Susy as cross between Jessie Spano and Catherine Tramell, and it didn’t hurt that she looked the part. She delivered a strong performance in a compromising role, one that required her to be ethically ambiguous. She did so flawlessly and created a case for audience sympathy and suspicion.
One character that seemed to have her moral compass more squarely aligned was Susy’s sister, Katy. Katy, played by Melanie S. Hahn, is an out-of-work architect whose lesbian identification bristles the male members of her family. Seeming to fall right from the pages of Dykes to Watch Out For, Hahn’s Katy is often the straight man during the rapid-fire dialogue, lying in wait to deliver the deadpan line that gets the laugh. She also has some of the more emotionally confrontational scenes with father, Brian. In these moments of tension, Hahn leads the audience inward, making it less about pity and more about empathy.
Completing the trio of siblings is Paul, played by Noe Flores. Paul is a pious, Christian-by-way-of-girlfriend carpet and flooring salesman. Flores’ Paul is fragile yet formidable: The only son trying to slog through internal conflict to make the family he wants out of the family he has. He appears to be the Marilyn in this Munster Family, even after coming clean with some secrets of his own. His skeletons are ones we’ve become so used to that they don’t scare us anymore when they rattle their way out of the closet. The most interesting thing about Paul is not his actions, but his reactions to the other characters. Flores plays them with such genuineness, becoming each audience member’s brother.
There is one thing that doesn’t quite add up given the supposed historical context of the play. A failing job market and limited economic opportunities are spoken of as if it were the same reality that millennials entering the job market currently face. However, it was a much different picture in the ’90s when America was experiencing an economic boom. The dot-com bubble hadn’t yet burst, covering all that lay in its splash zone in a vicious soup of balloon-mortgage rates and sharing economy triple shifts. I’m aware that this play was from Australia where the economic climate was no doubt different. Perhaps this background information was too hefty to shift, but it seems like other efforts had been made to Americanize the play and this was one tiny annoying oversight.
It’s a small criticism, though. Brilliant Lies is a very smart theater experience. The audience is pushed into some pretty uncomfortable territory, but that discomfort is rewarded with fantastic storytelling.
Brilliant Lies is at the Beverly Hills Playhouse until June 25.