Tenderloin is Cutting Ball’s attempt to channel Anna Deavere Smith. Based upon interviews with residents of the Tenderloin, the play a pastiche of children, adults, social workers, cops, and other professionals that serve this neighborhood. Overall, it feels very much like a work in progress. Parts of it are truly excellent, but other parts require additional thought. I hope the folks at Cutting Ball Theater keep their focus on this piece because it could really be a gem.
The play opens with a well crafted beginning. Actor Tristan Cunningham punctuated the rhythmic rap of a crazy person with astonishing insight. Building slowly, the on-stage noise gradually crescendo so that it mirrored the noise on the streets just outside the theatre.
Unfortunately, the spell was broken when the scene switched to Cara from Palo Alto (Siobhan Doherty) who brought the all the mien of a suburban matron – as well as the stereotypic lack of insight as she discoursed about how preferable the Tenderloin was over her old neighborhoods in LA and Palo Alto. “It’s so real.” she kept repeating, an echo taken up by others, as if being real made the violence preferable to other alternatives.
Just as quickly, however, the play focused on another, less annoying character. These rapid changes that saved the play, as they were so fast paced that two hours flew by. However, letting the characters speak for themselves was as much a virtue as a vice. The play struggled to redeem the Tenderloin as much as it did to reveal it, and it was here that the drama was lacking.
Matt Stines’ sound design was perfectly balanced. One usually never thinks of sound design unless something is going very wrong, but in this instance the delicate backgrounds sound of traffic, voices, music, and other ambient sounds added much to the overall production value.
Both the program notes and the script emphasize the veritable fleet of professionals that service the Tenderloin with so much love. Some of these characters, (such as the Filopina social worker and cop) were powerful on stage, as much for their energetic incompetence (in the case of the social worker) as for their refusal to make easy judgments (the cop).
In the final analysis, Tenderloin would be more successful if it refrained from preaching to the audience. In insisting that we see the Tenderloin differently, they insist that we see it their way. This approach doesn’t do their characters (or their material) any justice.