Review: Stella’s Last J-Date at LA’s Whitefire Theatre
OnStage Los Angeles Critic
LOS ANGELES, CA - It’s a simple, relatable premise—two people nervously go on a blind internet date, unsure of what they may find when they arrive. Stella’s Last J-Date, the world premiere play by Andy Rooster Block that just premiered at Los Angeles’s Whitefire Theatre, takes this classic set-up and runs with it, surprising the audience each time they might think they have it all figured out.
Stella (Amy Smallman-Winston) is an outspoken dog trainer who swoops into the New York City bar like a hurricane. Obsessed with “making an entrance” and clad in neon orange accessories, Stella is not someone you would easily forget. Her date, Isaac (Barry Livingston), at first seems to be her polar opposite—he is a nondescript, put-together, quiet schoolteacher, and, unlike Stella, if you saw him on the street you probably wouldn’t give him a second glance. Their date quickly goes from bad to worse with a few mediocre and even promising moments in between.
This play is very short, a concise 75-minutes, and for the first 20 or so it seems it may just follow Stella and Isaac on their pretty awkward, funny date, during which she literally both slaps him and kisses him. But then, after a particularly terrible moment, Stella storms out, and in walks a new, third character, Don (Elvis Nolasco). Just like that, I realized there was more to this play than I thought.
Don is quite an enigma. He knows a disturbing amount of information about both Stella and Isaac, refuses to reveal his relationship to either of them, and is dead set on getting Isaac to stop seeing Stella once and for all. Isaac and the audience initially assume Don is some ex-boyfriend of Stella’s, but as the play goes on the situation seems more complicated than that.
While Stella and Isaac agree that they genuinely look like their profile pictures, it turns out they both have some pretty serious secrets. Isaac is an alcoholic with a questionable relationship status, and Stella…well, I won’t spoil the particular skeleton in Stella’s closet. As she and Isaac continue to dance around whether their date is an unmitigated disaster or perhaps shows some promise in an impossible dating climate, Don continues to cause trouble, all leading to an ambiguous ending that will keep you thinking.
This rather simple production, directed by Bryan Rasmussen, is driven by the fantastic performances. Both Smallman-Winston and Livingston immediately bring their complicated characters to life, giving the audience a very clear sense of who they are as people in a very short amount of time. Nolasco’s mysterious, vaguely villainous presence is also very compelling, leaving you to wonder if Don may in fact be a figment of the imagination.
Personally, I found the final sequence of twists with Don and Stella’s backstory to be a bit too convoluted and hard to believe. Also, it was difficult to root for Stella and Isaac—while I ultimately found Stella to be the more likable of the two, Isaac’s steady unraveling over the course of the night lost him a lot of points. Maybe I just preferred the simple laughs of the early portion of the play before it began to shift from dark comedy to drama. While it may be an extreme case, Stella’s Last J-Date is an enjoyable, interesting examination of how people connect with one another in the modern age. I have to say, though, it did not encourage me to go sign up for dating sites.
Stella’s Last J-Date runs at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks on Thursdays at 8pm through May 5th. Due to strong language, it is recommended for ages 18+. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2519422.