THEATRE / Cut apart and dried: Paul Taylor reviews Matthew Lloyd's production of Han Ong's LA Plays at the Almeida

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At the end of the first of Han Ong's two LA Plays, a neon motel sign clicks on with the word 'Vacancy', which flashes for a time then fades to darkness. By this stage, though, just about the last thing you feel in need of is yet another symbol of Los Angeles as a spiritual vacuum and wasteland.

It's a perception of the place that has, after all, been relentlessly spelt out beforehand. When, for example, the protagonist decides to decamp to New Mexico, he describes LA as, 'a one-of-a-kind desert. People with sunglasses for eyes instead of snakes with rattles. Desert. Mirage. That's LA.' Catering for the 0.5 per cent of the audience who haven't managed to get there first, his interlocutor obliging chips in with, 'You're just going to move from one desert to another.' Anyone still believing that either place is an oasis may find that the protagonist's next line - 'A desert gypsy' - does the trick.

The plays have received great acclaim in the States, but watching Matthew Lloyd's production, which is well acted if too scattered in focus, I was hard put to understand what all the fuss was about. They centre on Greg (Francois Chau), a young Taiwanese immigrant and gay hustler whom we first see undergoing what looks like a humiliating cross between a screen test and a police interrogation conducted by an off-stage male voice that finds fault with his looks and, in a suggestive come-on tone, asks him to change them. This dream-sequence encapsulates much of what follows: the racial rejection; the realisation that his only marketable talent is sex; and the dependency on hustling that will become psychological as well as economic.

In short scenes that work best when they tilt towards the surreal, the plays throw neon light on the desolate world of LA after dark: the street corner pick-ups; the bleak bars; of people separated by glass and having to talk to one another by phone. What put a pane of glass between me and the play, though, was its frustrating bittiness which isn't mitigated by the contrived strands of imagery or the clunkily determined way the play enforces its sense of human disconnectedness: 'The desert. Night. Not a soul for miles.'

It's no accident that the character in this fractured world who seems happiest with his lot is Stefan Bednarczyk's morgue attendant. 'One good thing you can say about this job, at least, is that it doesn't require people skills,' he quips, sliding open drawers full of body-bag stiffs that have the decency not to require much in the reciprocity department.

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