Arika Larson’s “White Sangria” is a multilayered character study of a very odd couple whose true intentions never really become clear in the production now onstage at Just Off Broadway Theatre. The show is part of a series of works by women from Kansas City that MeltingPot KC is staging this summer. The small company is to be commended for drawing attention to worthy playwrights for whom professional productions so far have been relatively rare. “White Sangria,” for example, was first seen at KC Fringe in 2011 as an extended one-act. That was a memorable viewing experience that made me want to see what else Larson may have on her computer. Superficially, the play owes a debt to Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” in its setup — one couple invites another over for drinks and subjects them to an evening of psychological gamesmanship. But Larson’s artistic goals seem entirely different. She offers us a complicated central relationship with so many layers that you can never be sure what the true agenda may be. Ben (Jonathon Engle) and Marla (Sabrina “Brie” Henderson) have evidently lived a nomadic life as he moves from job to job in the corporate sector every couple of years. Now they’re in Seattle and have invited the boss’s daughter and her husband to their home for drinks and conversation. Susan (Melody Butler) and John (Coleman Crenshaw) have no idea what they’ve walked into as the social hour deteriorates from polite chitchat to uncensored revelations. At the opening-night performance the pacing in the opening scene was leaden as Engle and Henderson seemed incapable of getting on the same page. Larson gives these characters plenty of subtext and allusive backstories but the actors seem challenged to dig below the surface. Engle’s clipped responses seem robotic while Henderson prefaces her dialogue with pauses that may be intended to build tension but fail to do so. As the evening progresses, however, the show begins to cohere. Things pick up considerably after the arrival of Butler and Crenshaw, both of whom bring a welcome sense of timing and purpose to the stage. As superficial niceties give way to appalled awareness that something very weird is happening, the actors remain focused. After intermission, Henderson’s loose-jointed performance acquires heat and weight. She exhibits bursts of sharp comic timing as Marla becomes increasingly intoxicated and acquires a degree of gravitas. Henderson projects the image of an innocent, which counterintuitively informs her performance as someone apparently driven by multiple agendas. Engle, too, captures a degree of focus and intensity as the play evolves, even if the character is impossible to read. Director Harvey Williams may not be the ideal choice to stage this material, even though he should be commended for exposing the work of talented playwrights to a receptive audience. On one level Larson’s play is all about raw, if repressed, emotion. But it also examines these relationships from a somewhat distant, cerebral perspective. Integrating those two strands is a challenge.
“White Sangria” runs through May 18 at Just Off Broadway Theatre, 3051 Central. For more information, call 816-226-8087 or go to KCMeltingpot.com. Purchase tickets at BrownPaperTickets.com.