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Theater Review: “What Happens Next”

“What Happens Next” plays through April 29, 2018, at Challenged Athletes Foundation, 9591 Waples Street in Mira Mesa.
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“What Happens Next” is usually a question, but in La Jolla Playhouse’s latest WOW installment it’s more of a statement. The Playhouse commissioned the piece, which is being presented in association with Cornerstone Theater Company in Los Angeles.

The play centers around a group of veterans participating in a drama therapy course like those that are offered at community centers such as Sorrento Valley’s Challenged Athletes Foundation, where “What Happens Next” is presented.

The audience is witness to the group therapy session, surrounding the playing space and sitting only a few feet away from the participants/actors.

Three veterans and two actors playing veterans make up the “class.”  The facilitator is Bonnie (local actor Hannah Logan), whose job is to help these veterans process the experiences they have had. Bonnie will do that by getting them to work together as a team. She invites them to “be something.” One is a tree, a second a bird on the tree, a third a road through the area and so forth.

Another exercise emphasizes eye contact (in which each person stares into the eyes of another for an extended period), and a section in which each person describes one of the others helps draw the group together.

The range of emotions and attitudes on display partly reflect the fact that some have volunteered, while others are required to be there. But mostly the process is about voicing (and in some cases showing) the emotions these vets have kept inside for years. It’s a surprising (and sometimes shocking) experience to watch.

Encinitas Playwright Naomi Iizuka, a graduate of UCSD’s respected MFA program who now heads up its writing department, spent years interviewing veterans about their experiences.

Tina (Judy Bauerlein), a trauma nurse, is here because her CEO won’t sign her papers until she attends the class. She is sullen at first but eventually warms to the routine.

Jay (Nick Borrelli) is almost jovial and willing to do whatever Bonnie asks.

Frank (Nico Marcolongo), an Iraq veteran, is cooperative but tends to be judgmental.

Mike* (Francisco Martínezcuello), a retired marine who has written his own play, is diffident and feels invisible.

Karl (Bruce A. Lemon, Jr.) tends to get into beefs with Frank.

A late arrival is Anthony (Kionte Storey), a marine who lost his left leg below the knee to an IED in Afghanistan.

And volunteer Margaret (Jennie McFarling) enters with cookies after the class has left and Bonnie is left alone with the phone message that her father has just died.

“What Happens Next” is not your usual playgoing experience. You’ll see anger, sullenness, and unwillingness, as well as playfulness, humor and even joy on display. The play reminds me of a film I saw last year called “The Work,” which takes viewers into group therapy sessions with inmates at California’s Folsom Prison.

Go prepared to be surprised.

The details

“What Happens Next” plays through April 29, 2018, at Challenged Athletes Foundation, 9591 Waples Street in Mira Mesa.

Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 pm; matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2  pm. 

Tickets: (858) 550-1010 or lajollaplayhouse.org