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“Chaotic” comedy opens in Sonoma

The definition of beauty is fundamentally subjective: one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and all that.

How to define beauty is a debate for the ages, and in James Jandak Wood’s new play, “The Chaotic Art of Life,” his primary characters thrust and parry their way through. Must an object be beautiful to qualify as art? Can it be weird, even ugly, and still fit the bill? Is a shared aesthetic essential for human harmony? If you dig Jeff Koons, but Vermeer’s more my bag, can we still get along, even love one another?

The comedy, opening tonight, examines what happens when discord reveals people’s core tendencies. Evan is a copyeditor for a small underground newspaper who shares an apartment with Mark. When Mark, an uptown gallerista, installs an objet d’art in the middle of their living room, the uneasy détente between the men frays. Titled “Dissonance of the Fractal Expression of Clothing with Ladder,” the piece is decidedly New School. Evan loathes it, and Mark takes it personally. What follows is an excavation of what lies beneath.

Besides hewing to distinctly different definitions of beauty, Evan and Mark’s relationship is handicapped by the algorithm of divided loyalties, a plot twist that reveals itself some minutes in. Both men define themselves as “artists” despite the aforementioned day jobs, but their production – so far – is decidedly abstract: Evan is a writer who does not publish; Mark, an artist who does not sell. Stifled by the bilious punishment of thwarted desire, the men are peevish long before things take a turn.

When Julie – a pretty Fashion Institute of Design student the men take in to help square the cost of their Hell’s Kitchen flat – joins the fray, they find that she relentlessly reflects their individual fears. What are they hiding? Why not step toward the light? Are their proscribed ambitions a metaphor for something more? And when Diane, an older woman taking brief refuge from her failing marriage, joins the roommates, the women force the men to confront themselves.

The idea for “Dissonance” came to playwright Wood in a rush, when attending a noted sculptor’s project unveiling. The sculptor spoke of the fractal nature of materials he’d used, and while one part of Wood thought the whole idea funny — the precious and precocious verbiage of high art — another piece landed more firmly. He began considering the great trick of Nature, how what often appears random is in fact highly structured. Wood applied those same concepts to the relationships he stages, and what results is a crisply textured and layered thing. It’s a comedy, first and last, and Wood hopes audiences understand that. “It’s straightforward,” Wood said. “I want people to have fun and laugh.” But if they ponder a bit, too, on their way home, Wood certainly wouldn’t begrudge them that.

Rostering a cast with serious bona fides was as simple as posting the job on backstage.com. They came from New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles, serious actors with significant CV’s. Jennifer Peck, playing Diane, was in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine,” and Ben Diserens, who plays Mark, had done Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show.” Gayla Loeb, cast as Julie, did a stint with Chicago’s Second City Conservatory, and Andrew Ravini, as Evan, had a history of accomplishment across the thesbian trifecta with credits in theater, television and film.

“Dissonance” is the first original work scheduled for 2017’s Sonoma Arts Live calendar. “We’re trying to debut one work a year,” said Jaime Love, Sonoma Arts Live executive director. “If we all just do “Oklahoma!” every year, what’s the point?”

“The Chaotic Art of Life” turns a weighty stone with a deft touch. Through the prism of the art world’s sometimes convoluted and obscure self-importance, Wood examines the human mind. We are generally dispositioned toward communal experience, yet habitually focus on our relationships’ failures and flaws. Is it the fractal nature of the cosmos that precludes recognition of harmony? Are we doomed to a limited vision that primarily sees clash? Or perhaps we can we find a way, even with too little in common, to embrace the patterns that bind us, after all.

Email Kate at kate.williams@sonomanews.com.