A handful of Bay Area theater companies strive for it by focusing on the uncommon, the unusual, the unique.
These troupes provide a contrast with those that prefer to pick low-hanging fruit like Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard for the 17th time, or retread musicals like Grease for the 11th local go-round, or believe casting two women as The Odd Couple will add laughs.
The Magic Theatre, thankfully, belongs in the first category.
Witness its latest chancy venture into the known unknown, Se Llama Cristina. In it, San Francisco playwright Octavio Solis toys with words (ranging from coarse to poetic) and emotions (ranging all over the proverbial map) and timeframes (troubled flashbacks, a problematic present and tentative flashes forward).
He embraces hyper-serious subject matter, then switches moods by lacing it with verbal gags (many of the gallows humor variety).
His main characters often speak in ultra-short outbursts that can long remain ambiguous (or appear unrelated to the topic at hand).
Vespa (or Vera) and Mike (or Miguel or Miki), start off trapped in a seedy, locked room with drug paraphernalia on the kitchen table, scraps of crumpled poetry covering the floor, and an empty crib (except for a fried drumstick) enticing them.
Are they really victims? Are they really junkies (or alcoholics)? Are they really parents?
Interactions with Rod Gnapp’s alter ego (Abel and Abe) are equally unclear. Is he an abuser, a lover, a sperm donor?
Even if you can answer all those questions, more emerge. Did Vespa’s minister-father impregnate her, beat her, abandon her? Will Mike replicate those patterns?
Does all the action actually take place in one nightmarish room, or does it shift from Texas to New Mexico to Arizona to Daly City, where Miki proclaims, “This ain’t no home. This is squalor. This is a dead end. This is not my California dream.”
Was the pair’s relationship an extension of how they met — a wrong number? If they indeed had a child, is it a “weight” or an “encumbrance”?
Director Loretta Greco, in her fifth season as the Magic’s producing artistic director, keeps the 80-minute, one-act play moving at breakneck speed, and she skillfully keeps the audience guessing about the substantial changes Solis puts his characters through.
Now and then the dialogue acts as synopsis, as clear as a winter’s night illuminated by a full moon: “I’m scared, Miguel, that we’re not going to make it…that you’ll leave me in a town I don’t know with a child so sick and hungry and you’ll be gone. I’m scared that she’s gonna end up like me.”
More often than not, though, it’s terse and punchy: “I’m damaged goods.”
Alas, the comic drama feels marginally derivative, evoking shades of other plays and playwrights.
It may for a moment drag your mind back to the hysterical pregnancy of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It also may bring to mind the four-letter words and poetic phrases created by David Mamet, or the humor that makes Tony Kushner uses to make his ultra-heavy Angels in America bearable.
Se Llama Cristina is far from perfect — you’re apt, for instance, to be fuzzy about the protagonists’ backgrounds (at first they don’t speak Spanish despite being of Mexican extraction, then they do, in torrents that include dueling curse words).
Sarah Nina Hayon, who plays Vesta (designated in the program only as “Woman”), and Sean San José, who becomes Mike (“Man”), both deliver potent anguish and stinging humor.
Gnapp, too, holds your attention — with a gamut of verbal moves.
Perhaps one reason the Magic fills most of its seats with enthusiasts under 40, as opposed to the gray-hairs that populate many local venues, is its willingness to take chances — with its plays, playwrights and actors.
Se Llama Cristina plays at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street, San Francisco, through Sunday, Feb. 24. Performances Wednesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Tuesdays, 7 p.m.; Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday matinees, 2:30 p.m. Tickets: $17 to $60. Information: (415) 441-8822 or www.magictheatre.org.