by Richard Dodds
In a scene late in Entanglement, a new play by AJ Baker, one character says to another, "Why didn't you just tell me?" It seems a very rational question, given the lengths taken to communicate an answer that ultimately arrives in a few sentences. But this easy way out would deprive us of an entertaining play that's a dramatically scenic route to get to a destination not as far away as it seems.
A car trip is an apt analogy for a play in which the metaphorical passengers of various familial relationships are packed together as closeness brings about arguments, frustrations, rivalries, detours, and disputes over which routes best to take. In this case, the man at the wheel is a theater director who rightly objects to backseat drivers. But when the meddler is not only the producer, author, and star of the play, but also the former lover of the director, steering can become a challenge.
Entanglement is a play about putting on a play, and that inner play's raison d'etre is not about the audience that will supposedly see it at the SF Fringe Fest, but about delivering a message from the fictional author to the fictional director. That play is also titled Entanglement, but the real one is being presented at Z Below by 3Girls Theatre Company, of which Baker is the artistic director.
Twenty years before the play begins, a love affair between a student and her professor burned brightly but briefly and left deep scars. Luke, that former professor, is now a world-weary theater professional with diminishing opportunities. He doesn't quite understand why his one-time lover Emma has sought him out after all these years, but he thinks Emma's script shows promise that stokes his play-doctor predilections. And therein lies at least one of the rubs.
Because every word in Emma's script and how she wants to deliver them are part of a very specific message meant for Luke, rehearsals devolve into verbal battles whenever a change is suggested by her colleagues. And there's more baggage along on this theatrical ride. Emma's real-life husband is playing her partner in the play, and the couples both real and fictional are in fractious relationships. Add in Luke's comely young daughter who's working as his assistant director, and who is much more convincing when subbing for Emma in love scenes with her husband, and the speed bumps only get bigger.
Baker briskly mixes humor and tension in her script, with a sense of a mysterious agenda hanging over it all. The play-within-a-play metatheatrics take on an unscripted dimension with Louis Parnell playing the director of the fictional Entanglement while directing the actual Entanglement. His work is admirable in both positions, but is more visibly noteworthy playing a man of the theater who has been worn down by devotion repaid with slipping success. Whenever Parnell is on stage, and with little flamboyance, he pulls us in with an understated wisdom that seems to churn within.
Parnell is in good company all around. Madeline HD Brown delivers on an interesting challenge as Emma, the playwright and actress with an ax to grind, who needs to be a good performer in the scenes outside her play while hitting the wrong notes when rehearsing the dialogue that she wrote. Chad Deverman brings an edgy presence to his role as Emma's husband, who is her reluctant costar in the play she has written. As the director's daughter, Heather Gordon is a likably comic minx and a shrewd operator. Julian Green pulls a lot of nuanced humor from the small role of the tech guy who is an uneasy witness to the temper-prone rehearsals.
Early on in the play, Emma talks about a quantum mechanics theorem of entanglements, stating that once two particles have become entangled, what happens to one will always affect the other. It's an unnecessarily high-tone way of stating the obvious precept that echoes of a love affair messily ended years ago can still reverberate. We don't need a physics lesson to tell us that.
Entanglement will run through Dec. 17 at Z Below. Tickets are $35. Go to 3girlstheatre.org.