IN "THIN WALL," a punchy new comedy at New Playwrights Theater, author Phoef Sutton looks at both sides of the veneer between our civilized selves and our violent primal urges.
Duane wakes up in his friend Susan's Los Angeles apartment -- and finds himself staring into the barrel of a gun. It belongs to Matt, Susan's high-school boyfriend, who has impulsively tracked her down eight years later to make his long-postponed sexual conquest.
While warily circling each other, Duane and Matt overhear a domestic row: Susan's brawling neighbors, thuggish Frank and his dim girlfriend, Pam, are going at it on the other side of the apartment's thin wall. Matt tries to break up their dispute. Outraged by this invasion of their privacy, Frank and Pam rob Susan's apartment in revenge. And so on in a spiraling chain of nastiness.
Sutton suggests that Americans are awash in numbing wave of societal violence that can't help but seep into our personal affairs. There is also more than a hint that humans have are innately attracted to violence. Though Duane, a sensitive "new man" type (read "wimp"), is interested in Susan, she is perversely attracted to Mr. Wrong -- the boorish, physically overpowering Matt -- who models his black-and-white morality on Clint Eastwood.
And though Pam has lost count of the times she's been slapped around by Frank, she remains loyal with a skewed logic that has her constantly apologizing to him and everyone else, even defending his brutality. By play's end, each of Sutton's characters has picked up the gun, and each has confronted his attitude toward using force as a solution.
Sutton shuttles neatly back and forth between these two odd couples, with Duane as witness and comic foil. Though the situation is implausible at times, Suton keeps the verbal and physical tussles lively and clear, and his curt, quick dialogue and sharp jokes about love and L.A. have a funny, natural bite.
Directed by Arthur Bartow, "Thin Wall" is competently acted, with two standout performances. With his constantly startled expression, Ernie Meier is an endearing Duane, given to instant amateur analysis and deploying a comic diplomacy when faced with a gun or a fist. As Susan, Mary Woods is a wonderfully edgy career woman, a seen-it- all Mary Tyler Moore type who's having a particularly bad day.
Playwright Sutton, who was born in Washington, is off in L.A. writing sitcom teleplays. Though "Thin Wall" suffers from more than a trace of television glibness, it also shows Sutton's real promise as playwright.
THIN WALL -- At New Playwrights Theater through November 3.