Arts and Entertainment
Volume 31, No. 45 March 2, 2006

Playwright John W. Lowell

Take Note:

Relationship issues unfold in the play ‘Taken In’ but the good news is that this is one play you don’t want to miss

John W. Lowell’s “Taken In” is a powerful play about two people in an emotional power struggle. That alone should be enough to lure audiences in to see Director Brian Spencer’s fine production of playwright John W. Lowell’s evocative work. Fortunately, for Santa Cruz audiences, there’s much more to enjoy here, and most of it has everything to do with actors Daniel D. Hughes and Michael Olvason, who deliver pristine performances playing two men whose unexpected bond sends them both rolling off the cliff of “What is this?”

“What is this” might be considered something shy of love were it not for the messy emotional stuff that often comes between two individuals drawn to reach for reasons even they aren’t quite clear about. Let’s face it, human beings crave connection—real connection—and depending on where one’s emotional barometer lies, and how much attention to detail any of us are willing to give to uprooting those dead weeds from the past, sometimes those connections happen with the most unlikely of partners.

In “Taken In” that sort of connection happens between Marc (Hughes) and Danny (Olvason). Thirtysomething Marc is complicated and conflicted. Danny is a gruff street hustler who says it like it is. Marc is drawn to Danny. Danny is intrigued with Marc. When Marc invites Danny to stay with him, Danny reluctantly agrees but is ready to hit the sheets. But that’s not what Marc wants. “… Sex for shelter is a very mean trade,” he notes. Meanwhile, a stunned Danny wonders why Marc is being so kind. And is he? Really? Does Marc even know why he’s taken in Danny?

This is juicy stuff. Lowell offers some yummy brain candy here in a poignant, illuminating script that asks questions yet doesn’t mind not providing all the answers. Lowell’s words—fun, fresh—also capture the universality of relationships and the co-dependency that often sprouts from well-watered neurotic soil. As this two-part play unfolds—Marc often narrates the tale—we find both men developing needs that are never really fulfilled. Danny challenges Marc’s perceptions; Marc invites Danny to believe that there’s a world, perhaps a man—him?—that is good for him.

Hughes is terrific in this role. The local actor who’s appeared in many regional plays—“Food Chain,” “The Altruist” to name but two—has a wonderful knack for capturing a believable vulnerability in all of the characters he’s taken on. With Marc, he infuses one-part well-meaning, three-parts confusion. He’s a mixed-up mess but fully believes he’s moving on from a past relationship that apparently wreaked havoc on his insides. Marc’s problem, it seems, is this: He can’t see, or admit to seeing, the real stuff; the reality of his life. Hughes captures Marc to wonderful ends. Audiences see Marc on stage, not an actor playing a character named Marc. This is quite refreshing, especially in an area that, at times, feels hungry for even more theater, more characters, more cultural meat. Hughes also manages to embrace man-on-man love and affection without a blink of an eye, another testament to his acting skills.

Brilliant and certainly this season’s theatrical find—although he’s appeared in local productions in the past—is Olvason. He captures Danny and completely embodies this emotionally rich character. True, this young actor resonates on stage, but what makes Olvason stand out is that he has real stage presence. He’s a theatrical spark plug, generating the passion, the spit-and-vinegar, the intensity that Lowell’s script requires. Danny speaks with a New York accent, something Olvason nails without sounding forced. Danny is comfortable in his body, something Olvason breezily exhibits. Danny is both vulnerable and fists-ready, something Olvason executes with spirited conviction.

Olvason is a young actor, and who knows, his fiery performance could be chalked up to youth. But I doubt that. There’s something bright and powerful in this individual and should he pursue a career in acting, I would not be at all surprised to see him rise from the unwashed masses of the entertainment industry and stand out among his fellow thespians.

Together, Hughes and Olvason just work. It’s a real nod to Spencer, who must have clearly seen this during audition time. You can’t concoct real chemistry—Lowell’s play shows us that. Real chemistry is hard to find, so when it’s there, it’s something to savor. And that happens with these two dynamic actors. They illuminate the complexities of the Marc-Danny relationship, their tug-pull, the “come close, move- away.”

It’s interesting to note what another, perhaps less skilled director would have done with Lowell’s characters. Given the blueprint of the production, one imagines that at least one of the characters could have been played over the top, sans any real imagination. Come on—we’re dealing with a street-hustler punk here, so there’s plenty of room to overact. The same holds true for the character of Marc, who could have been guided to emotionally vomit his scenes and call it a night. Thankfully, that never happens in this production.

Spencer has been generating buzz for years with his local shows. His S.E.E. Theatre has hit quite a few high notes, which makes this tale somewhat bittersweet. It’s Spencer’s last gig. So, eat it up. And take note of the way Spencer and music master Mark Bradlyn manage to inject some creativity here, or how Jim Clark’s use of sound hits the mark and never feels as if it’s forced. You get a realistic sense, through those sound tech options, that this is really happening in New York. Kyle Grant’s lighting captures both the mood and setting to winning ends as well.

What’s left?

Plenty to enjoy. Well, there is all that thought-provoking stuff mentioned earlier, but those who fear this might be too heady, toss the angst aside. Part of the charm of Lowell’s script is that it has a lovely balance of humor and pathos. And, with Hughes and Olvason at the helm here, it’s hard not to be taken in by “Taken In.”

“Taken In” runs through March 25 at the Actors’ Theatre, 1001 Center St., Santa Cruz. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and at 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $17/general; $14/students and seniors; Thursdays two-for-one at $20 or $12 single tickets. For more information, call 425-PLAY, or the Civic Auditorium Box Office at 420-5260.