My introduction to coffeehouses began as a teenager reading Boswell’s “Life of Samuel Johnson,” a biography of the 18th century scholar and wit who waxed warmly on a multitude of topics in company with such luminaries as Edward Gibbon, the historian; Joshua Reynolds, the painter; Edmund Burke, the statesman; Oliver Goldsmith, the novelist, poet and playwright; and other habitués of The Turk’s Head coffeehouse — heady company, to be sure.
“Café Society,” by Peter Lefcourt, the new play at the Odyssey Theater in West Los Angeles, satirically proposes that Starbucks coffeehouses are stifling human interaction, its denizens too narcissistic to care about anyone else, while corporate greed overcharges for a simple cuppa.
The show opens with Darnell, a barista, sweeping up his West L.A. Starbucks as Marilyn, an attractive realtor, breezes in. Across the room she spies Kari, a pretty blonde tarted up with a too-short skirt, too much makeup and torn fishnet stockings, looking ready to tango.
Ignoring a disreputable, bearded man slumped across the center table, Marilyn asks Jeff, a chipper, would-be screenwriter working his laptop, if he’s the guy with a schnauzer from Bark.com whom she’s supposed to meet. He’s not. They’re deep in conversation when Bob, a short, bald, besuited, middle-aged, “personal wealth manager” enters.
He’s the guy Marilyn met on Bark.com. Unimpressed, she tells him her name is Carolyn.
Bob turns his attention to Kari, who explains that she’s not really a hooker but an actress awaiting a call from her agent. The call comes in. Kari grabs her massive duffle bag and oversized purse, dashes into the restroom and reappears in a nurse’s uniform.
The bearded man wakens. Darnell gives him a latte after shaming Bob into paying for it.
The man enters the restroom, emerging clad in a tattered tutu and plastic tiara, proclaiming himself Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanov, long-lost daughter of Czar Nicholas II.
Into this mix enters Martin, a maladjusted malcontent with a bomb in a bowling bag. He threatens to blow up the coffeehouse if he can’t speak to Howard Schultz, chairman and CEO of Starbucks.
Alerted to Martin’s bomb, the LAPD SWAT team arrives, reporters from KTTV, KTLA and KABC’s Eyewitness News in tow. Even Geraldo Rivera shows up with Fox News.
Lefcourt’s proposal is tenuous. On the infrequent occasions I’ve accompanied my friend, local music and art critic, the late John Farrell, on a mad dash to a Starbucks after a performance so he could write his review to meet his deadline, the places were quite lively.
Maybe it’s just the Starbucks on the Westside which subvert conversation.
My son DeForeest, a college student, has become a regular at the Unurban Coffeehouse on Pico Blvd. in Santa Monica, due west from Lefcourt’s intellectually challenged West Los Angeles Starbucks. Granted, the Unurban is more 1950s beatnik hangout, often hosting experimental films and other offbeat attractions, but it’s home to serious and playful conversations, a popular place with cerebral folks all over the Westside.
Crisply directed by Lefcourt’s wife, Terri Hanauer, “Café Society” has many enjoyable situations, and production designer Yee Eun Nam wins plaudits for the clever use of Starbucks’ menu boards showing Googled research, text messages, parts of Jeff’s screenplay and callers’ images. Kari’s ringtone of Judy Garland singing, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” is on the money, the running gag becoming funnier each time her agent calls.
Oddly, I occasionally found myself chuckling alone at some amusing lines. I can only suppose they were considered politically incorrect with the rest of the Odyssey’s Westside audience — unsure of how to respond, perhaps afraid of appearing insensitive.
It’s a pleasure to report that the acting throughout is top notch.
Eric Wentz is terrific as Jeff the screenwriter, a liberal whose contempt for Bob’s libertarianism — which the script thinks is a form of conservatism — knows no bounds. Susan Diol as Marilyn shines in an underwritten part. Eric Myles Geller has a lock on Bob, the middle-aged money manager on the make.
Donathan Walters as Darnell perks up “Café Soceity” whenever given the chance. Nick Cobey brings depth to Martin in a difficult role: a loner (of course) seeking to make an impression rather than trying to make a difference.
Chandra lee Schwartz is marvelously funny as the ditzy Kari, a 42-year-old actress frantically trying to look 32. Chandra is able to break through the comedy to convey Kari’s desperation with every role she loses while remaining in the batter’s box, bravely slugging away.
Ian Patrick Williams is often hilarious as the bearded, burnt-out CEO who believes he’s Anastasia. In two important bits, seen only on the Starbucks screen, Gabriel Romero is resolute as Captain Nunez of the police, reminiscent of Jack Webb in “Dragnet” and Kailyn Leilani is a scream as the Eyewitness News “airheaded reporter” Kelly Kahanahana.
Though never smutty, conversational profanity, which needlessly becomes more frequent as the show progresses, makes this show strictly adult fare.