Performance: 'Flesh' for fantasy

GRAYDON ROYCE | Updated 8/17/2012

Playwright excels when she rolls the dice.

Anna Sundberg and John Riedlinger in "Flesh and the Desert"

Carson Kreitzer's new play, "Flesh and the Desert," opens with a come-on from a slot machine. Actor Anna Sundberg, dangling coins from her headdress, begs us to spend just a bit more time with her. Pull her arm, hit the jackpot and caress a pile of warm coins in your hand. You know you want it.

"Viva Las Vegas!" -- the promised land where dreams come true and fortunes fall into your lap. Or is it the other way around? Kreitzer's work, which premiered last weekend at the Playwrights' Center, is a sharply observed pastiche of images from America's final frontier. Part myth and part history lesson, "Flesh and the Desert" mixes glitz, sand and real recollection into a cautionary tale.

The production, under the aegis of Workhaus Collective, provokes us with imagination and invention. Director Ben McGovern had demanded pace and energy from his actors, and with his technical designers has constantly worked to inject mystery into Kreitzer's narrative. Give a special hand to costumer Annie Cady, who decks out Sundberg and Sara Richardson in slinky showgirl glitter and puts Bugsy Siegel into a snap-brim fedora and pinstripe suit. Karin Olson's lights also cast shadow and illumination effectively.

There are a couple of stories that we follow throughout. Carter (Gabriele Angieri ) and Barbara (Maggie Bearmon Pistner) are long-term veterans of the Vegas game. Now retired, Carter was a union musician and Barbara was a showgirl. Their memories remind us that real people do in fact live and work in a city that often seems unreal. Carter, between dropping famous names who were to him nothing more than bosses or acquaintances, was instrumental in integrating the hotels and casinos through the union's insistence. Barbara worked until she recognized it was time for her body to stop.

Amanda Whisner portrays a scientist who reviews the desert's history and the effect that sun and radiation can have on the people who live here.

Another thread concerns Sundberg playing a maid and Wade Vaughn a casino worker. They meet in the desert and find a measure of hope in each other. And then there is Bugsy (John Riedlinger) and his moll, Virginia (Richardson), wandering the desert like ghosts. "Why," Virginia begs, "did you bring me out into all this sand?"

Occasionally, Kreitzer writes her script by Wikipedia -- reciting how the cast and crew of the film "Genghis Khan," which was made near Los Alamos, N.M., had a high incidence of cancer. A saggy-jumpsuited Elvis (Leif Jurgensen) calls Richard Nixon on the phone and later fires shots into his TV set.

These are familiar grabs from popular culture. Kreitzer is best when she rolls the dice with her ingenuity.

So, anybody have a quarter?