Reviewed by Marc Wheeler

Jillian Leigh’s Hooked, now receiving its World Premiere as part of the inaugural season of the Los Angeles Theater Festival, offers many ingredients that can make for a compelling, if gritty and disturbing, evening of theater — prostitution, violence and cyclical sexual abuse. Unfortunately, two-dimensional characters, a paper-thin plot and minimal production design are likely to leave audiences of Hooked... anything but.

It’s 1988 in Lower Manhattan during the Tompkins Square Park Riots. Fourteen-year-old Joe (Seth Lee) is alone in the dingy apartment in which he and his negligent mother squat. In blows Kim (the British-tongued Sasha Higgins) — or “Mac” as she’s sometimes referred — to escape the turbulence outside. Sporting laced-leggings, a denim miniskirt and a shiner on her forehead to compliment her smudged mascara, Kim is Joe’s mother’s strung-out girlfriend who regularly exchanges sex for survival. The child and prostitute spend the next 20 minutes discussing junkies, art and the moon, as well as Joe’s quaint recollections of Kim’s sexual conquests (“remember that guy who wanted you to eat his ass…”) before Kim tells little Joe of his mother’s desire to abandon him. The boy re-actively confesses his affection for our heroin-filled-heroine and begs his mother’s lover for a taste of the “spoonful of sugar and spoonful of dirt” she brags “hooks them every time.” “I’m yours ‘til morning” she replies, and off into the storm-clouded sunset they stumble.

Cut to Act II and in a seedy motel room a stripped-down, modern-day Joe (Rodney Eastman) straddles lingerie-clad hooker Alex (playwright Jillian Leigh). With iPhone in hand, he engages his mistress in sex-tape foreplay as she alternately resists and resigns. As the hour unfolds, Alex confronts her whiskey-breathed John about the secrets he harbors. As traumas get exposed, it’s clear that damaged pasts are now damaged presents, making a happy ending far from sight.

Directed by Terri Treas, Hooked is ultimately a missed opportunity to adequately explore such weighty subject matters of underage sex, neglect and abusive relationships. Performances throughout are rather ineffective and unmotivated, though inconsequential dialogue and an aimless, unbelievable script regrettably encumber their potential for success. Set design by Paul Howle appears shoddy, uninspired and unnecessarily confusing when a prominently-featured, sentimentally-charged lamp and painting in Act I’s apartment unrealistically reemerge decades later in Act II’s motel room. Costumes by Wendy Craig are period appropriate and sufficient. Lighting design by Christie Conochalla is simple, though spotlight troubles need remedied. Sound design by Post Haste Sound is adequate.

Michael Zand is Producer and Dramaturge. Blue Brooks is Producer.

While the Los Angeles Theater Festival is an admirable new venture giving theatrical artists opportunities to experiment and play, it also carries the risks inherent in unknown productions often lacking in budget and prestige getting showcased. Hooked is such an example of a curious, intriguing idea in dire need of a fully-formed premise, fleshed-out characters and polished production design.

Hooked on the concept, not the execution — Hooked simply leaves us hanging.

Now playing through September 25th, 2015
The Ruby Theatre at The Complex
Running time: 70 minutes (includes intermission)
Photo (above) by William Converse: Hooked’s Sasha Higgins and Seth Lee.