Plays or films about middle-aged men in midlife crisis are pretty common, which doesn’t mean there isn’t room for one more, provided the writing is sharp, the plot details fresh and the characters interesting. Day Trader, by Eric Rudnick, is about a struggling screenwriter named Ron (Danton Stone) looking desperately to escape an unhappy marriage with something more than the shirt on his back. The first few scenes, which set up Ron’s relationship with his smart-alecky teenage daughter Juliana (Brighid Fleming) and his smarmy neighbor Phil (Tim Meinelschmidt), appear promising, but somewhere a third of the way through it becomes clear that Rudnick’s reach has exceeded his grasp and that the unpredictable black comedy he’s trying to fashion is anything but.
The play opens in Ron’s backyard where he is grilling hamburgers with as little success as he has had selling scripts, all the while listening to an audiotape (heard in voiceover) on how to make money-trading stocks. From his conversation with Phil we learn that he wants a divorce but that according to the pre-nup his wife – an offstage presence who communicates with him via cryptic notes and whom the men refer to as the “Iron Lady” – gets to keep everything they own. (It’s hers, anyway.) Phil offers him distraction by way of a night out on the town; they go to a bar where Ron, a monogamous stick-in-the-mud by Phil’s reckoning – attracts the interest of an attractive waitress, Bridget (understudy Dianna Aguilar). The two meet up and get it on. OK, so far, no problem. But when Ron’s wife decides that their daughter needs counseling, the therapist improbably turns out to be the same woman. Is this because Bridget is a grad student in psych? Is she paying off her tuition by working in a clinic? These were my first thoughts. No, unfortunately, the character is positioned at this juncture as the first of several progressively unconvincing contrivances whose weaknesses are underscored by the off-kilter ensemble. Most disappointing is Fleming’s cheeky youngster, a non-textured portrayal that displays none of the theatrical savvy so visible in her recent turns in The Nether and Wait Until Dark. It’s as if the character’s posturing and ennui has seeped into the performance itself. As to Meinelschmidt, his understated delivery suggests he may have confused the stage for the small screen. Neither his slick bounder nor Stone’s unschooled philanderer evince much inner life as they parry from one line of dialogue to the next.
All this suggests a laxity in Steven Williford’s direction – an impression compounded by Stephen Gifford’s disjointed set design: dark furniture, a tawny-hued linoleum-tiled floor (or so it appeared), a non-representational scenic backdrop of a dark city surrounded by water and desert and next to it another hanging set piece reflecting palm trees and starry skies. If this is a statement about L.A., it didn’t work for me. Michele Young’s costuming of Bridget was also a puzzle: the tight skirts and come hither fuck-me high heels worn in her office environment and for a therapy session with a young girl seemed out of place, even if the person wearing them wasn’t the professional she was pretending to be. This may be only a detail but miscalculated details do pile up. Like too many gimmicks in a script, they can subvert a sound story.
Day Trader by Eric Rudnick
Bootleg Theater and Small American Productions
At the Bootleg Theater
2220 Beverly Blvd.
Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays at 7:00 p.m.,
Sundays at 2:00 p.m.
Runs through Sunday, February 16, 2014
Review by Deborah Klugman.