by Tracey Paleo, Gia On The Move

There are rules, dictates, conformities and guidelines to being a gentleman. When it comes to maintaining one’s honor, however, almost none of them are gentle.

Lashing out spontaneously is tempered with a  broil & churn system of agreements in order to met out an appropriate justice for dishonor accidental or otherwise. When appropriate (and it is in every case appropriate), a man is bound to enforce a structured violence through muscular bravado. Challenges are made and duels are fought to cure even the slightest and nonsensical of insults, injuries or misfortunes (yes, the walk ten paces, turn and fire, kind) as is the case in Rules of Seconds a new play by L.A. based playwright John Pollono.

Rules of Seconds plays upon the variegated ideas of masculinity and how real men must behave in all circumstances. A couched tome of the very same kind of politics we are more or less seeing today Rules of Seconds presented as a classical piece, according to Pollono, satisfies his fascination with the archaic code of dueling in 19th-century life.

Geez! It must be hard to be a guy wading through the mire of superficial hetero-normality.

In Rules of Seconds, narrated by actor Ron Bottitta who also plays Dr. Wright,  Nathanial “Wings” Leeds (Matthew Elkins) suffers from OCD, not then recognized as an infliction. When he refuses to shake the hand of Walter Brown, (Jamie Harris), the most powerful and dangerous man in Boston, to settle a business deal, and then spills tea accidentally on his boot, Brown in retaliation for the insult challenges him to a duel to the death.

Without means to properly hire a team of witnesses to accompany the occasion, as is the code, he is forced to enlist his reluctant and estranged brother James (Josh Helman) as his second and a doctor who has recently faced and lost (a finger) in a duel with James.

What ensues is a plot embroiled in insults perceived and real from the past which include Nathanial and James’ mother Martha Leeds (Amy Brenneman) and the revelation of a deeply dark history between the brothers over their personal family honor and the event that tore the family apart – until now.

Love prevailing or a last-minute intervention might be what modern audiences would like to imagine here. But the duel, actually takes place, blood is spilt all around by the men and no one goes unscathed emotionally or physically. That is, until Martha Leeds takes matters into her own hands for a most apropos, break-all-the-rule-books finale.  “It takes a woman.”

Rules of Seconds is smart and economically written, if not with any overt emotional resonance. But by doing less, it perfectly reflects the comportment of the period and for a modern audience, highly appealing in its candid artlessness. Impeccable performances by the entire cast.

Only one aspect of this production is difficult and that is with the stage/staging. Done on a semi-round, director Jo Bonney, has chosen to have the cast direct the entire performance to the center of the auditorium barely addressing side audiences. This results in noticeable muffled sound when sitting to the side of the house (but for the cast members powerful vocal resonance).

Photo credit: Matthew Elkins, Josh Helman, Damu Malik, Feodor Chin, Joshua Bitton, Ron Bottitta, Leandro Cano and Jamie Harris
Photo by Grettel Cortes Photography

Note: At the March 30, 2017 performance, for which this review is based, actor Andrew Lees played the characters of Hollander and Bonnie.

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