A slide show prologue on the back wall of the set depicts iconic images and personalities from the ‘90s: Lorena Bobbitt, Tonya and Nancy, the Friends cast, Bill Clinton playing the sax for Arsenio Hall. In the abstract, the ‘90s don’t seem like some bygone era, but it’s odd how remote, even quaint, these images look in this context.
The four short plays that makeup Rochester Nights, the inaugural production of Theatre Upstairs, were written during the ‘90s by Jeremy Kareken, and the costumes and hairstyles reflect that decade. But the unsettling conflicts and power dynamics they depict are common to any period.
Theatre Upstairs is an outgrowth of Arizona Actors Academy, a training center run by Brandy Hotchner situated, as one might guess, on the second floor of the office space at 16thStreet near Thomas. The company scored a coup by obtaining the rights to the collection of early short works, two of which have never been staged before, by Kareken, co-author of the Broadway hit The Lifespan of a Fact. A longtime friend and theatrical crony of director Hotchner, Kareken was also present for rehearsals and the first performances.
The opener, “Hot Rod,” is the broadest and least dark; set in a store where a young couple is registering for their wedding, it features a very funny turn by LaToshia Hill as the distracted, compulsively snorting woman in charge of the registry. This is followed by “The Negotiation,” in which two yuppies try to hammer out the sexual payoff of a dinner date, and by “Performance Review” a Zoo Story-like episode in which a corporate boss (the imposing Brandon Raehl) inexplicably bullies and provokes a sad sack young intern (Mitch Tellez) during his review.
The longest and best piece, “Rochester Nights,” makes up the whole of the second act. It concerns a young married couple in the title city who receive a middle-of-the-night visit, right around Christmas, from the husband’s former girlfriend (Lauren Rohs), now a movie star. She stays on the couch and makes an obnoxious pest of herself as far as the realtor wife is concerned, but the husband remains smitten. Then the star’s husband (the excellent Tyler Boettcher) shows up, and things get really awkward.
Indeed, all four are squirming-in-your-seat comedies of social one-upmanship and repressed desire. They’re all funny but hard-edged and angry, sometimes even slipping into violence. Yet they all end on notes of poignancy and tenderness. Best of all, the provide a fine showcase for some promising young actors, and a promising new company.
Lastly, a word should be said for the stage crew. They manage the scene changes with such all-but-military precision that it adds an additional layer of exhilarating performance to the evening.
Rochester Nights continues through Saturday, April 27 at Theatre Upstairs, 2701 North 16th Street #210. For details go to azactorsacademy.com or call 602-535-5472.