Duels and Death Take Center State in ‘Rules of Seconds’
By Nicholas Slayton
Photo by Grettel Cortes Photography
DTLA – Blood! Brothers! Boston! Bravado! With its violence and 19th century New England location, Rules of Seconds could be a thriller from Ben Affleck. Instead, it’s a world premiere play that balances bloodshed and dark comedy in a tale of social norms, family secrets and class inequalities.
Directed by Jo Bonney (who helmed last year’s Father Comes Home From the Wars at the Mark Taper Forum), Rules of Seconds debuted at the Historic Core’s Los Angeles Theatre Center on Thursday, March 23. The show runs through April 15. The short run is due to the actors’ tight schedules, Bonney said.
The show follows Nathaniel “Wings” Leeds (played by Matthew Elkins), an obsessive-compulsive man who unwittingly finds himself challenged to a duel by Boston’s most notorious fighter, Walter Brown (Jamie Harris). In the effort to make it through the ordeal, Wings enlists his skilled brother James (Josh Helman), while their mother Martha (Amy Brenneman, whose credits include the TV drama “Judging Amy”) gets caught up in the events.
Playwright John Pollono said the story had been kicking around his head for years. He had become fascinated with duels, and the idea that gentleman could elevate certain slights or dishonors into a literal matter of life and death in the effort to preserve their manhood.
“Duels were more common than we realize back then. I had it take place in Boston because I’m from there,” Pollono said. “The inspiration was to draw a line between dueling and modern toxic masculinity. You see guys have a couple beers in a bar in Boston and then get into a fistfight. I understand that.”
The title refers to “seconds” in duels. Once a duel is arranged, the fighters would pick someone as a second (in Wings’ case, his brother), who serves as a mediator and can try to resolve the matter before it comes to violence. Brenneman said that in the play, every character is aware of how absurd a duel to the death is, but they keep barreling toward it. In doing so, they have to follow a “gentlemanly” code.
“There’s all of this social protocol and rules and it’s all about blowing people’s heads off,” said Brenneman, also known for her role in the HBO series “The Leftovers.”
This marks Bonney’s third collaboration with Pollono. The show wound up in Downtown Los Angeles thanks to Pollono’s role in the Temblors. That’s a group of seven playwrights who partner with the Latino Theater Company, which operates the LATC.
Pollono said Rules of Seconds is his riskiest work as a playwright. Some actors play multiple roles; others occasionally break the fourth wall. He and Bonney both said the show is in the vein of the Grand Guignol, a Parisian theater known for its horror entertainment and grandiose elements, or the works of Quentin Tarantino and Martin McDonough.
That comes through in the violence. Although there won’t be massive spurts of blood, Bonney said that the rough stuff is heightened for the stage.
“The very nature of people challenging each other and always stepping up to feel like they’re in control, that’s what leads us to war,” Bonney said. “So you just have to play it for the reality. When you play it for reality you realize how absurd it is.”
Key to that are the women in the play, who serve as a foil to the rampant masculinity. This is particularly true for the character of Martha. Brenneman said that the women in the show are trapped by the customs of the day. They have to watch the dueling process play out, and are unable to intervene in the violent spectacles of men.
The play also explores class differences and the ideas of privilege. Harris’ antagonist is a man of means, while the Leeds family is working class. Other characters include immigrants trying to make it in the United States. Bonney said that as with the violence, the show attempts to present the social structure in order to highlight the absurdity of it.
That social critique just happens to involve plenty of mayhem.
The Rules of Seconds runs through April 15 at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., (213) 489-0994 or thelatc.org.