Dark, twisty "Higher Methods" at Providence's Daydream Theater

Elyssa Baldassarri (Kayla) and Tony Amaral (Matt) in "Higher Methods" (photo: Daydream Theater)

If Antonin Artaud had written the screenplay for The Stunt Man, it might well have looked like "Higher Methods," the bracing, disorienting evening of dark drama offered by Providence's Daydream Theatre through Saturday, April 27. Written and directed by Rhode Island playwright Lenny Schwartz, this is an evening of in-your-face theatre that may not be for everyone, but those who can handle a bit of sjuzet with their fabula will not be disappointed. (A-and let me tell you, I don't crack out the narratology in the first graf of many theater reviews...)

The basic fabula is simple: 20-something Matt (Tony Amaral) arrives in Los Angeles in search of his sister, Katharine, who disappeared into fringes of the Hollywood machine some ten years earlier. He has caught a glimpse of her in the background of a film, and by retracing her steps (the clubs, the producers, the acting classes) he hopes to track her down.

Skewering the soulless anomie of Hollywood has been a perennial in fiction since Day of the Locust, but Schwartz manages to thread the needle of cliche with hard-edged dialog, a script that keeps us perpetually guessing, and strong performances from an ensemble cast

All the action is handled on a simple set: a blue backdrop, in front of which we see the back-lit letters of the Hollywood sign (from behind, of course, so we see the scaffolding that props them up). A couple of brick walls, a lamp, and a handful of chairs. As the scenes shift, the audience (and sometimes, Matt) may not know exactly where or when we are for a moment, but that's all part of the show. Schwartz wisely trusts his actors to just go there and take the audience with them.

The play opens with Matt landing at LAX, bantering with his seatmate, Kayla (Elissa Baldassari). Amaral delivers an appropriately muted, nuanced performance as Matt, who may be a naif, a tightly-wrapped obsessive with a secret, or, perhaps, a celluloid homunculus experiencing the entire action of the play in retrospect. Kayla is, in many ways, the axis of the show, as she accompanies Matt through a picaresque sequence of events where nothing is quite what it seems. Played with a delightful brash energy by Baldassari, Kayla is by turns a Tinseltown vamp, a cold-blooded killer, and a Beatrice in Matt's Purgatorio.

At what moment does Matt's journey go off the rails? Is it the first drink handed him by a Hollywood bartender/actor (played with just the right note of self-aware character-actor-ness by Daniel Lee White). Or is it getting high with Shannon, an actress who leads him to Katharine's acting class (Shannon Hartman, whose twisty repartee with Matt really crackles). By the time we find ourselves learning the Method from the "legendary" John Edward Marcus (who Aaron Andrade plays with extraordinary range, from whispering guru to menacing puppet master) we no longer know where to situate the reality of the action, as the first act ends with what is either a tortuous hallucination or a refreshingly simple mass stabbing.

Did Matt's sister Katharine become an acolyte of John Edward Marcus and his cult of murderous students (or is that all an acting exercise). Did she run into the big-time director Cameron Stark (played with grim intensity by John Campbell) and lose herself in one of the bags of the designer drug, "Midnight" that he tosses to aspiring actors? Certainly, once Matt has sampled the director's kindness, we can no longer trust what he's seeing or saying. Did Katharine have the twisted backstory Matt describes in his audition, or is that a fabulation? Does anyone in Hollywood even know the difference? (The reactions of Cameron's sycophantic assistants, played by Emma Fitzgerald and Christine Pavao, are spot-on and delightfully ghoulish.)

When Matt and Kayla break the fourth wall to watch a sunset -- prefiguring (or perhaps remembering) the final moments of the play where Matt appears in Stark's film -- all of nature itself has begun to look artificial to them. And in that last scene, does Matt finally meet his sister, or is that just an actress playing Katherine? "They thought they had us," she says, "But we fooled them."

Indeed. But Schwartz cleverly leaves us wondering whether that, or anything, can be taken at face value. This kind of theater is right in my wheelhouse: metafictional, irreducible to linear plot, and grimly sardonic. If you like this kind of stuff, I highly recommend catching the show this weekend.

But be aware: not for the kiddies. There are adult situations, extensive profanity, simulated drug use, multiple stabbings, and descriptions of sexual violence. As William Carlos Williams says in the introduction to Howl, "Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell." Or, in this case, just Los Angeles.

"Higher Methods," written and directed by Lenny Schwartz, produced by Daydream Theater at the Bell Street Chapel, 5 Bell Street, Providence RI through April 27. General admission, $10. More info on Facebook