The problem with American optimism is that it leaves us dangerously unprepared for life's brutal and unforgiving shocks. Most of us have grown so fat and happy (mostly through psycho-chemical engineering) that we forget life's greatest setbacks are usually bigger than not getting the lowest financing on that SUV. So it is with He, the disillusioned hero of the Wooden Leg Theater Co.'s production of Leonid Andreyev's turn-of-the-20th-century Symbolist classic He Who Gets Slapped.
Once a towering figure of the intelligentsia, He (Mike Brainard) has had both his wife and work stolen from him by a clearly less-gifted colleague (Matt Tully). Of course, the only response to this indignity is to run off and join a threadbare circus, there to create a new identity, the symbolically named He Who Gets Slapped, a clown whose sole claim to fame is that he can suffer the most blows; in other words, He gets the shit beat out of him for the amusement of the unseen circus audience. He settles nicely into his new life, and all is well until He falls in love with Consuelo (Bonnie Leigh), an ill-refined beauty whose rapacious father, the dissolute Count Mancini (Mike Martin), plans to marry her off to a gluttonous baron (Matt Aston). Faced with this final cosmic injustice, He is driven to a last, desperate act of defiance, symbolically cheating fate and preserving Consuelo's innocence unspoiled for eternity.
The audience may miss this in director Gavin Carlton's muddled, unfocused staging. Carlton doesn't seem to have any idea what to make of the material, leading to wildly disparate performances from an otherwise talented cast: some play it for melodrama, others as over-the-top farce. Aston's Baron, whose threat works best if played absolutely straight, is instead saddled with a ridiculous fat suit that turns him into a pathetic figure of fun instead of the spider-eyed predator Andreyev describes. Brainard's subtle psychological realism works best as He, especially in an early scene with Martin's cynical Mancini; each emanates a powerful aura of world-weary resignation, making the scene a complex, nuanced meeting of bitter kindred spirits. Too bad the rest of the play isn't as understated as this quietly effective—and infinitely sad—moment.
He Who Gets Slapped at the Shed at the Toy Factory, 660 Mateo St., Los Angeles, (323) 664-8691. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m. Through April 26. $15.