Review: 'Trudy and Max in Love's' amorous, adulterous journey

"Trudy and Max in Love," a new play by Zoe Kazan now at South Coast Repertory, might sound like an innocent romantic frolic, but red roses and sweet nothings have little to do with it.

For the navel-gazing characters in Kazan's well-observed yet ultimately facile drama, being "in love" is a condition so extreme it may require medical intervention. Sure, it feels great in the beginning, but like any addiction it robs you of yourself.

A study of an adulterous relationship, from its tentative beginnings to its unsurprising conclusion, the play has the contemporary sheen of a premium cable drama. Kazan, an actor and writer of famous lineage (her grandfather is that Kazan), is very good at etching the lineaments of a storybook urban milieu.

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Like the Los Angeles of "Ruby Sparks," the film she wrote and starred in, the Brooklyn of "Trudy and Max" is the kind of place where creative types gambol freely and rent isn't the primary topic of conversation. But though this fable wrestles honestly and intelligently with the fiction of happy endings, the dramatic stakes are small for everyone but the self-absorbed title characters.

A 39-year-old novelist who moved from Los Angeles to bohemian Brooklyn, Max (seductively played by Michael Weston) is both attractive and suspiciously single. His background includes a glamorously miserable childhood and a model ex-girlfriend he's desperately trying to keep at bay.

He first encounters Trudy (the captivating Aya Cash), a married author of young adult fiction still in her 20s, at a shared writers' office, in which hipsters don't have to be completely alone while cranking out prose. The two whisper flirtatious banter about coffee.

Trudy: You like this black?

Max: Cream, sugar.

Trudy: That's disgusting.

Cupid strikes a direct hit, but the course of love will not run smoothly for all the obvious reasons. Kazan dramatizes each errant stage of this amorous journey as though it were the only one of its kind and not a confirmation of a predictable pattern.

Trudy loves her reporter husband, who's away covering the presidential election, but feels as though she's disappearing in a marriage that has lost some of its luster. Her fugitive romance with Max provides a perilous yet thrilling way for her to reclaim her identity. In what may be the worst line in the play, she tells her therapist, "Eros is the opposite of Thanatos. Lust conquers death."

Blanche DuBois put it more memorably when she said of death that "the opposite is desire." But then Blanche's poetic eloquence is supported by the architecture of Tennessee Williams' drama. Kazan's philosophical musings, by contrast, give the sense of an author who is anxious that her play isn't reaching high enough.

"Trudy and Max" showcases Kazan's facility for capturing small moments that reveal both the psychology of her characters and the tenor of the times. But one of Kazan's strong suits as a writer — her refusal to judge her characters — turns into a shortcoming when Trudy, a character every bit as narcissistic as Max, becomes the mouthpiece of the play's wisdom at the end.

Chekhov didn't judge his bungling characters either, but the ironies compiled in each of his plays speak more profoundly than any individual voice. That grander critical vision is conspicuously absent in Kazan's work. No one, of course, expects a fledgling playwright to live up to the standard of the father of modern drama, but there's a lesson here: In giving more weight to Trudy's interior journey than to Max's, Kazan winds up implicitly endorsing one problematic perspective over another. Max gets the last word but Trudy's enlightenment gets pride of place.

The production, directed by Lila Neugebauer, is commendably inhabited by the leads. The relationship of Trudy and Max may be torturously drawn out, but Weston and Cash generate steady interest through the spontaneous combustion of their acting.

Cash's pixieish charm invokes Kazan's, which sets up a distracting autobiographical parallel. And she can seem more like a dilettante than a professional writer sweating a deadline. But the agony and the ecstasy of Trudy and Max's bond is convincingly rendered, thanks in large part to the freedom of Weston's performance and its enticing effect on Cash.

Celeste Den and Tate Ellington, the only other cast members, perform a multitude of supporting roles. Ellington is remarkably adept at differentiating his characters. Den's comic flamboyance scores laughs but her portrayals blend together, and the outrageousness of her handling of Rochelle, a vixenish sharer of the writers' space, makes a crucial plot point implausible.

Laura Jellinek's multipurpose apartment/office set doesn't concern itself with realistic trappings. Lap Chi Chu's lighting, Cricket S. Myers' sound design and Melanie Watnick's costumes all contribute to the production's cheap chic modern surface.

While watching "Trudy and Max in Love," I kept having to remind myself that I was in a theater and not on my couch watching an HBO stab at high-minded reality television. The play, in sacrificing scope for texture, reveals that a playwriting talent can be at once precocious and immature.

"Trudy and Max in Love"

Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends Jan 26.

Tickets: $22-$72

Contact: (714) 708-5555 or http://www.scr.org

Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com