The wolf at the door elicits plenty of unexpected angst in Steve Yockey's funny yet terrifying modern-day spin on the Little Red Riding Hood legend. This new play "Wolves," which is on the fourth leg of four consecutive premieres in different U.S. cities (featuring different casts and directors for each rendition), is a gay-themed comic thriller that might be thought of an unlikely cross between Stephen Sondheim ("Into the Woods"-sans music), and Alfred Hitchcock ("Psycho"). It's a heady 21st-century fairy tale that brings intriguing psychological undercurrents to a tale chock-full of surprises.
Director Michael Matthews' imaginative and electric staging and the efforts of a first-rate cast serve the debuting work well. Though there are refinements that could be made to the script, the piece registers as refreshingly offbeat and thought-provoking.
A highly observant narrator, whose role in the play eventually becomes more crucial than expected, relates the story. The droll and captivating Katharine Skelton, who really knows how to "work" a room, as well as the other characters, plays her. The yarn revolves around Ben (Nathan Mohebbi), a neurotic young gay man who clearly has reason to be annoyed as well as jealous at the behavior of his roommate Jack (Matt Magnusson), who happens to be his ex-lover.
Ben still carries a torch, and Jack shows every sign of being a callous user and a manipulator. In their cramped dwelling, tensions quickly become evident, particularly when Ben wants to go on the prowl in the local cruising areas, venturing into the "forest" of the urban jungle, where adventure, temptation, and danger can exist.
Ben gets his way, going on an expedition and returning with his prize, a hunky local called Wolf (Andrew Crabtree). The action gets increasingly tense from there, as the hour-long play reveals plenty of unexpected twists and some truly shocking developments.
Matthews expertly guides the actors through the story's twists and turns and skillfully orchestrates the efforts of a fine design team for maximum atmospherics and chills, with salutes due to technical director/blood FX director Matthew Brian Denman, scenic designer Kaitlyn Pietras, sound designer Cricket S. Myers, costume and props designer Michael O'Hara, and lighting designer Tim Swiss. Fight director Sondra Mayer also elicits first-rate results. The cast is likewise superb, carefully conveying the information we need to know for the story to progress, revealing their character traits, without foreshadowing the surprises.
Though the work has enjoyed the benefit of three prior renditions in what is called a "rolling premiere" program, sponsored by the National New Play Network, it would benefit from additional tweaking. It only runs slightly over an hour, and its brevity is a virtue in that it delivers a taut narrative reminiscent of classic TV dramas of yesteryear, such as "The Twilight Zone."
Yet some of the dialogue seems superfluous. The actors do such a fine job of portraying the subtle and not-so-subtle intricacies of their characters, that we occasionally sense the script is belaboring some of its points.
Yockey provides much food-for-thought with a pertinent contemporary ring. Among the themes that emerge are the complexities of relationships -- gay or otherwise -- in the modern age, and the thin line that can exist between ardent love and obsession, and between passion and violence. There could be more clarity in bringing the play's intriguing psychological layers into focus.
The work is a potent mix of daring themes and down-and-dirty fun. It would be well worth some judicious retooling. Meanwhile, the Celebration is offering what appears to be a surefire hit, providing audiences with a provocative and surprising show, enhanced by first-class production values and fine performances.
"Wolves" runs through May 5 at the Celebration Theatre, 7051B Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood. For info or tickets, call 323-957-1884 or visit www.celebrationtheatre.com.