“Threat”: a tense journey beyond the boundaries

Marking boundaries isn’t easy. It’s hard to find the border between two states when a flowing river  separates them. It’s far harder to find the boundaries between two human beings in a fluid, shifting, emotionally charged relationship.

Louis Felder’s new play, Threat, looks at humans pushed to their limits. And it lets us experience the interplay between boundaries we define for ourselves and those that are publicly defined — by laws, and by the ethics codes of professions.

Mason Conrad, Pagan Urich (photo: Magdalena Calderon)

At the center of this story is Margaret, a woman involved in two relationships where she must find the borders. The first occurs in the opening and closing scenes; in it, she holds the less powerful position, as student and then protegée. In the second relationship, which occupies the heart of the play (and most of its running time), she holds a dominant role, as therapist to an agitated student.

Both relationships push her up to and past the edge of the world marked out by ethics rules, because the other person is unwilling —  or unable — to respect them. This leaves her in uncharted territory, relying only on her inner moral sense and whatever courage she can muster.

Felder, who developed Threat from his 10-minute play Dark Matter,  knows the landscape he’s leading us over. His characters are familiar and their conflicts are outlined with accuracy; they also speak as we do, or would. The conflicts reach resolution, but the play’s world is real enough that while things end, they don’t end comfortably.

Producer Bree Pavey and the Whitefire Theatre are giving Threat a serious, focused production. Every element is skillfully handled. Madylin Sweeten’s simple set design, and Matt Richter’s ink-art projections and pre-show music, welcome us to an everyday world that’s somehow quietly ominous.

Dr. Westbrook (John Posey) enters that world — his office — with unmistakable self-satisfaction before he says a word. Margaret (Pagan Urich) gives us in her body language her progress from  diffidence to comfort, then to alarm; her angry outburst comes as no surprise. What does surprise is the choice she makes, violating herself in order to stay in the game.

In the second scene, Margaret sits at the desk, which is now hers .
In comes David (Mason Conrad), a physics grad student who’s very disturbed: His professors haven’t nominated him for a Nobel Prize. We soon suspect his “work” is not a breakthrough, but a breakdown. He grows more and more frantic, drawing Margaret into a quandary for which no one has trained her.

The acting in this play is equal to the writing, which makes for a challenging and satisfying experience. Posey’s solid presence reveals cracks through which things leak — crass exploitation at one point,  genuine sympathy at another. Conrad’s bravura turn moves steadily — no, jerkily, a wiser choice — into his paranoia, yet never lets us break our empathy for him even when he grows irrational and violent. Instead, he poignantly portrays the battle between the person he wants to be and the one his fear and rage make him.

Urich’s role is the most complex, and she handles it with delicacy and precision. She does not at all telegraph her first major decision; later, she moves through a series of sudden changes, never once betraying whether she is being guided by emotion or calculation. When she reaches the final crisis, we know her motives and options, and feel her terrible distress, but have no certainty what she will do.

Director Asaad Kelada also deserves a nod for the show’s tight pace and focus. No movement is without strong motivation, the power shifts and emotional transitions are clear and swift. Kelada’s TV career seems to have taught him sharpness and speed, without seducing him into the tube’s love for oversimplifying or underlining.

Threat is slated for only two more performances during this run at the Whitefire. The tautly writen play, and the skilled production it’s getting, make me hope for an extension.
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Threat, by Louis Felder, directed by Asaad Kelada.
Presented by Bree Pavey and Whitefire Theatre, at the Whitefire, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks 91423.

Thursday and Friday at 8:00,
through May 4th.

Tickets: <www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3343157>
or (818) 990-2324