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Day Trader: Eric Rudnick’s Roller Coaster Ride Is a Hollywood Noir

Danton Stone, Murielle Zuker, and Tim Meinelschmidt

Danton Stone, Murielle Zuker, and Tim Meinelschmidt

Day Trader is sort of Sunset Boulevard meets Body Heat meets Wall Street, a modern morality play that will keep audiences on the edges of their seats as they try to figure out what’s going on and will happen next. Danton Stone -- who has trod Broadway’s boards opposite Christopher Reeve and Gary Sinise -- heads this stellar four actor cast as 49-year-old father Ron Barlow. Brighid Fleming, who is probably the youngest “Featured Actress” Ovation Award winner ever, plays his daughter, 15-year-old Juliana Barlow. Although never actually seen onstage, their forbidding wife/mother, Brenda, the so-called “Iron Lady of Hancock Park,” is an unseen presence looming over the action like the gigantic, scowling wife who grows out of a house in a famous James Thurber cartoon.

Brenda is a millionaire, but as he confides to his next door neighbor Phil (Tim Meinelschmidt, who was in Coastal Disturbances) -- who, like Ron, is a failed Hollywood scriptwriter -- Barlow is extremely unhappily married. He schemes to escape from the marriage with his “share” of Brenda’s bread, scheming to use a loophole in their almost airtight pre-nuptial agreement to score millions.

Enter into this combustible situation the femme fatale Bridget (leggy Murielle Zuker, who appeared in Three Sisters and, as Frida Kahlo, was the best thing about 2013’s The Assassination of Leon Trotsky: A Comedy at the Odyssey Theatre), a waitress and acting student at a bar Phil takes Ron to. All hell breaks loose, as playwright Eric Rudnick’s play explores how low people will sink out of their lust for money, status and -- well -- lust.

A Topnotch Cast and Crew]

The Washington, D.C.-born Rudnick was raised at Massapequa, Long Island and moved to L.A. in 1999. In 2003 the actor/writer wrote and appeared in Edge of Allegiance, a political spoof of the Bush presidency; the play ran at the Met Theatre and is now a web series helmed by Day Trader’s director Steven Williford. Rudnick’s script (which this reviewer has read a version of) is nearly perfectly constructed. The stage action and dialogue is full of clues that will tip off the astute listener as to what is really going to occur in this taut drama, which -- like the human condition itself -- also has its share of laughs. Rudnick also has keen psychological insights.

Danton Stone, Brighid Fleming, and Tim Meinelschmidt

Danton Stone, Brighid Fleming, and Tim Meinelschmidt

For instance, in one pivotal scene Ron tells Juliana how (so he says) her mother truly feels let down by her. But this dramatic moment is a quintessential example of projection on par with Newt Gingrich’s claiming of the moral high ground during a 2012 presidential debate in defense of his adultery, after a reporter asked the candidate about his marital infidelity. Ron, of course, is actually revealing how the grim Brenda feels about him, not their daughter.

In addition to being exceedingly well-written, Day Trader is skillfully directed and superbly acted. Fourteen-year-old Brighid Fleming is a rising star who ticket buyers and casting directors should keep their eyes on. Last March at the Kirk Douglas Theatre she portrayed Iris in The Nether; including Fleming’s Featured Actress award, Jennifer Haley’s drama earned seven Ovations, the most won by any 2013 play. In October
Fleming portrayed the spunky neighbor Gloria in Wait Until Dark opposite Alison Pill at the Geffen Playhouse. The up and coming Fleming’s screen credits include 2009’s Gamer, co-starring Gerard Butler and Michael C. Hall. The teenager also plays Eleanor in Jason Reitman’s Labor Day with Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin and Tobey Maguire

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Although Stone has previously acted in movies and television shows shot here, with Day Trader the recently relocated New York theatre veteran makes a most auspicious L.A. stage debut. On the little screen Stone had recurring roles in the mid-1990s series My So-Called Life starring Claire Danes and on the Roseanne sitcom. Stone acted in a number of Lanford Wilson dramas, including Circle Repertory Company’s 1984 revival of Balm in Gilead, winning a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Ensemble Acting. He also appeared in Broadway versions of Fifth of July with Christopher (Superman) Reeve in 1980 and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Gary Sinise in 2001. As Ron Barlow Stone delivers a letter perfect performance as an increasingly desperate out-of-work screenwriter (who has turned to the titular day trading as a possible way to make money independently of the overbearing Brenda), a character many in Tinseltown may recognize.

According to press notes, Williford is a four-time Emmy Award nominee as part of a Daytime Drama Directing Team. He has worked on soap operas such as All My Children and directed 2012’s The Green, a Showtime movie about alleged inappropriate conduct by a teacher, co-starring Julia Ormond and Illeana Douglas. Williford has also directed more than 40 productions for the stage, at venues ranging from Off-Broadway to the Tacoma Actors’ Guild.

What Price Selling Out?

Brighid Fleming and Murielle Zuker

Brighid Fleming and Murielle Zuker

Within the Wall Street world, a day trader is a speculator or investor who buys and sells financial instruments on the foreign exchange and stock markets within the same trading day. Throughout the play Ron listens to a 25 session self-help tape that explains how to perform this form of profit-seeking, which is done largely in solitude via phone, iPad, computer, tablet, etc. With his play’s get rich quick scheme within a scam, Rudnick agrees that Day Trader can be interpreted as a parable and critique of capitalism.

The drama’s title can also have multiple meanings, as “trader” sounds like “traitor.” Ron’s betrayal of Juliana reminded this writer of one of literature’s most heart rending acts of treachery. At the end of George Orwell’s (real name: ERIC Blair) dystopian masterpiece 1984, after his failed rebellion against the omniscient totalitarian state, the imprisoned Winston Smith is taken to “Room 101” to be tortured. There, threatened with hungry rats eager to eat his face, Winston literally rats out his co-conspirator and lover. Desperate and terrified, the broken Winston shouts: “Do it to Julia!”

Except in Eric Rudnick’s alternately hair-raising and hilarious rollercoaster ride Day Trader, instead of Big Brother watching him, Ron Barlow better watch out for Brighid Fleming’s “Little Daughter.”

Ed Rampell

Day Trader runs 7:00 p.m. on Thursdays-Saturdays and 2:00 p.m. on Sundays through February 16, 2014 at the Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd. L.A., CA 90057. (Note: On Jan. 18 and 19 the role of Ron Barlow will be played by Eric Rudnick.) Tickets are $25. For more information: (213)389-3856 or www.bootlegtheater.org.

Ed Rampell