For those of us blessed with living in the only county God herself has smiled upon, our experience with hypnotism probably extends no further than Mark Yuzuik, the high-energy mesmerist who holds court each summer at the Orange County Fair.
Not to disparage the when-I-rub-my-nose-you-shall-beat-your-arms-as-if-they-were-wings-and-cluck-like-a-chicken Yuzuik (who, in fairness, puts on a hella-funny show), but he's the kind of "hypnotist" that Dr. Malaad, the lead character in Bob Clyman's new play, Tranced, would love to throttle.
Malaad is a hypnotherapist, an impeccably trained medical doctor who has forged near-celebrity status among psychiatrists for developing a technique that mines repressed memories. Patients reveal their deepest traumas in a few high-intensity "trance" sessions that only Malaad remembers. He then uses the acquired knowledge to slowly get his subjects to recall their submerged demons in real time, a gradual acceptance that, apparently, is far healthier than flooding their consciousnesses with a torrent of painful memories.
But when a smart, privileged, African foreign-exchange student comes to the good doctor with a tale that appears far more sordid than getting diddled by cousin Ernie, he's forced to choose between protecting the patient he's sworn to keep safe, or finding someone—in this case, an ambitious foreign correspondent for a major daily newspaper—to relay her awfully horrible, awfully Important story.
There are plenty of twists and turns in this potboiler, and though it's way heavy on exposition and seems 15 minutes too long in search of an ending, the surprises keep things enticing and wholly suspenseful. Special kudos for keeping the interest meter high go to a stellar ensemble cast and Jessica Kubzansky, an LA-based director far too long absent from Orange County stages.
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In less-gifted hands, Tranced could easily founder on the shoals of its dialogue-sodden structure. But Kubzansky's energetic method of moving characters on, off and around the stage, as well as her ability to break up talky scenes through lighting and sound effects, keep the pace brisk and the attention level high—no small feat for a play that, in the first act, especially, is filled with as many details about African tribal politics and hydroelectricity as a particularly drony NPR report.
That allows the soul of Clyman's play to shine through its problematic tell-all, show-little structure. Ultimately, this is a play—not entirely unlike Donald Margulies' deceptively deep Shipwrecked! last year at SCR—about stories and who owns them. Though Clyman's answer does seem a bit easy—he favors black-and-white causation over always-far-more-intriguing morally relativist ambiguity—the question is posed so convincingly by the very human characters at his play's core that the obviousness is easily forgiven.
Or is that what he wanted me to think?
Tranced at the Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-2787; www.lagunaplayhouse.com. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through Feb. 3. $25-$65.