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BWW Review: The Latino Theatre Company Premieres John Pollono's RULES OF SECONDS at The Los Angeles Theatre Center

A few weeks ago, when I took my friend's kid to preschool, I was a little confused after I overheard her teacher telling his classmates to sit "criss cross applesauce with spoons in the bowl." The kids apparently understood what she meant because they all snapped to attention and sat Indian style with their hands in their laps.

Followers; every single one.

There's nothing natural about sitting "criss cross applesauce" but it's a preschool custom that kids blindly obey and will likely never question.

John Pollono's Rules of Seconds examines America's socially constructed customs through the lens of dueling, a once commonly accepted way to end disputes that now causes audiences to scratch their heads in confusion.

The story is set in 19th century Boston. A wealthy local man, Walter Brown (Jamie Harris), offers to buy the Leeds family's failing business. After signing a contract with the family, Walter Brown extends his hand to Nathaniel Leeds (Matthew Elkins), who's an emotional germaphobe so afraid of human contact that he refuses to shake hands, and instead winds up accidentally spilling tea all over Mr. Brown's Italian boots. Outraged at this assault on his "honor", Mr. Brown challenges Nathaniel to a duel (well, he at least uses the tea stain as a pretext; we later learn he's still bitter about a many decades-old rejection by Nathaniel's mom, but I'll leave that humorous tale for Harris to tell you when you go see the play.)

The loveable Nathaniel (Matthew Elkins) and
his street smart brother Jimmy (Josh Helman)

Nathaniel seeks much needed experience and guidance from his estranged, battle-tested, and streetwise sailor brother, Jimmy (Josh Helman). After Jimmy convinces Nathaniel not to run away from the challenge -- because it will leave a huge stain on the family's "honor" -- Jimmy becomes Nathaniel's "second", a term used by the Royal Code of Honor to describe the intermediaries of dueling parties who negotiate with each another and conduct the "business" of the duel. Jimmy trains Nathaniel and tries to broker peace with the hilariously unreasonable Mr. Brown.

A narrator (Ron Bottitta) appears throughout the tale to briefly lecture the audience on Dueling Procedure, as set forth by the Royal Code of Honor, much like a non-musical version of Hamilton's "Ten Duel Commandments."

The audience spends the duration of the journey shaking their heads and laughing at the seemingly arbitrary and obscure nature of this strange code of honor, which seems to control everyone's life for no good reason. As you leave the theatre, it is impossible not to wonder what insane "codes of honor" we might have that future generations will be snickering at in a hundred years.

How Was It?

Short Answer: Rules of Seconds is easily the best new play that's premiered in Los Angeles this year. John Pollono's original story is well crafted, easy to follow, and very smart.

The cast is terrific; the design is stunning; and, the utter ridiculousness of Jamie Harris' character will leave you laughing like a hyena.

Longer Answer:

John Pollono has crafted a near perfect play. I am a firm believer that the script is the single most important part of any production, and Rules of Seconds is fortunate enough to employee some terrific writing.

Choosing a duel in the 1850s to showcase the silliness of blindly and strictly adhering to society's rules and traditions is quite brilliant. The setting is long enough ago that modern audiences can look at the etiquettes of 19th Century Boston with the detachment and objectivity that's needed in order to see the humor in killing people over "honor". Yet, it's still recent and familiar enough that it forces audiences to wonder what strange tenets we take for truth will future generations satirize.

Walter (Jamie Harris) dancing with
Martha (Amy Brenneman), the woman
that once rejected him.

The cast was outstanding. Worth mentioning was Jamie Harris' portrayal of the overly eloquent aristocrat, Walter Brown. Harris embodied the utter ridiculousness of his character with such ease that I can't see anybody but him in that role. It's impossible not to burst into hysterics as he tells the slapstick tale of his romantic rejection with such aggressive flowery and articulate grace. Harris' character was essentially the personification of strict adherence to silly socially constructed customs and he did this very important role the justice it requires.

Josh Helman was another standout of the evening. Helman portrayed Jimmy, the young, street-smart, and battle tested sailor much the same way Brendan Fraser played Rick O'Connell in The Mummy. Jimmy is definitely the guy you'd want to have as your second in a duel, and Helman slipped into the character with remarkable ease.

Judging Amy's Amy Brenneman portrayed Martha Leeds - Jimmy and Nathaniel's mom - with such empathy, compassion, and love, it was impossible not to cheer for her when she surprisingly exclaimed the show's very powerful and satisfying final line. Matthew Elkins played the sweet and seemingly doomed germaphobe Nathaniel with such a pitiable spasticity and lovability you can't help but fight the urge to want to give him a big hug and say, "It'll be alright!"

Director Jo Bonney, and her team of remarkable designers, did the show wonders by splashing it with hints of the modern age throughout. Worth mentioning were the stunning projections (by Hana Kim), lighting design (by Neil Peter Jampolis), and sound design (by Cricket S. Myers) that took place between scenes. The modern tones of these brief transitions packed a powerful and long lasting punch for sure.

Go see this show; you won't be disappointed.

Who Should See It?

The story is well written, easy to follow, and universally entertaining, so on those grounds alone Rules of Seconds has wide appeal.

Don't let the fact that it is being premiered by an organization called "The Latino Theatre Company" fool you into thinking it's something Hispanics will for some reason enjoy more than any other race. Everyone, regardless of race, gender, class, education, and sexual orientation will find it really easy to connect with this show.

There is violence, some profanity, and sexual situations, so it might not be wise to take small children to see this. (The violence is very similar to The Hateful Eight, where absolutely no blood is shed for the first 9/10ths of the show, but in the final few minutes the lack of violence is cured with an absolute blood bath.)

How to See It

Rules of Seconds runs through April 15th at The Los Angeles Theatre Center in Downtown Los Angeles. Tickets range from $22 to $52 and can be purchased here or by calling (866) 811-4111.

The Los Angeles Theatre Center is located at 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles, CA 90013

Pretty Pictures

Right before the duel. Stunning design.
It's usually ill advised to bring a knife to a gun fight, but
Jimmy makes it work. Josh Helman and Feodor Chin
Walter's servant holds his tea stained boots as he explains why
Nathaniel's assault on his honor will be met with bloodshed.

Photos by Grettel Cortes Photography

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