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Empty Angst: The New Group’s ‘All the Fine Boys’

March 1st, 2017 Comments off

by April Stamm

Isabelle Fuhrman and Abigail Breslin in 'All the Fine Boys.' (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

Isabelle Fuhrman and Abigail Breslin in ‘All the Fine Boys.’ (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

What could be better fodder for a play than the oppressive wretchedness and frenetic glee of being a middle school girl in small town America in the 80s? You’ve got your disillusionment with family and peers who don’t understand you, awkwardness of living in a body that’s changing so rapidly it doesn’t even seem like your own, budding sexuality wrapped in anticipation and fear, all set to a perfect soundtrack from the likes of The Cure, The Go-Go’s, and The Smiths. Unfortunately, Erica Schmidt’s foray into this very world in her new play, All the Fine Boys, misses those juicy marks at almost every turn.

Set in suburban South Carolina, All the Fine Boys follows best friends Emily and Jenny as they navigate their middle school existence through their friendship with each other and their respective relationships with older beaus. Emily is head over heels for Adam, a senior, and a regular artsy, rebel, guitar-playing, self-involved, minor league bad boy. As for Jenny, she throws herself, perhaps not knowing exactly where she’ll land, at a man double her age from her church. The action of the play flips back and forth between the two couples as their interactions turn to ersatz relationships, and then fall apart in both predictable and pseudo-shocking ways.

As a script, All the Fine Boys does not give actors much to chew on. If we are to take in the play as a “slice of life” drama, the dialog and character development fall flat. Both girls are drawn with broad, uncomplicated strokes, and while there are contradictions, they play more as liberties taken to move the plot along as opposed to honest and interesting character crafting. However, if we should look at the play and its writing less literally and assume the four characters are symbols of the struggles of youth and complications of love and sex, then that would mean we should see love, sex, and youth as trite and banal because that’s what plays out in these 100 minutes.

Abigail Breslin and Joe Tippett in 'All the Fine Boys.' (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

Abigail Breslin and Joe Tippett in ‘All the Fine Boys.’ (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

As Emily, Isabelle Fuhrman pulls from the role what she can. Although she takes a scene or two to convince us, Fuhrman does eventually find tiny bits of truth in Emily, the smart, new girl in school who is desperate for warmth and attention. On the other hand, Abigail Breslin as Jenny never quite finds her groove. She is playacting, and cannot get herself off of the page. She seems uncomfortable on stage, noticeably agitated by her costumes and stilted in her delivery. If she could channel the awkwardness as an actor to the awkwardness of her character it could work, but Breslin can’t find her way.

The two men don’t fare much better. Alex Wolff’s young, cocky Adam comes off as the same guitar wielding, angst-ridden teen we’ve seen a million times with no nuance. As for Joe, Trippett’s portrayal of the conflicted, religious zealot and pedophilic Joseph, is blank and without passion, making his sometimes ridiculous and often impulsive decisions as a character completely nonsensical.

Isabelle Fuhrman and Alex Wolff in 'All the Fine Boys' (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

Isabelle Fuhrman and Alex Wolff in ‘All the Fine Boys’ (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

Amy Rubin’s set and Erica Schmidt’s direction may have worked on paper. The stifled, dark mottled walls serve as a depressing living room, Jenny’s basement, Adam’s bedroom, and Joseph’s apartment. The scenes change as they run into each other, one beginning before the last is cleared away, which does keep things moving along. Both create a feeling of fast, yet strangely crowded loneliness that is probably meant to mirror the characters’ strife. However, with so little in the play to connect with, it just comes off as an ugly room and a forced pace.

Being a girl in her early teens is painfully awkward and anyone who ever was one knows that. However, instead of delving into that world and helping us to feel something about it, All the Fine Boys simply sits with not much to say.

All the Fine Boys
The New Group
The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street, NYC
Through March 26

April Stamm is a freelance theater, food, and lifestyle journalist. She is a regular contributor to EDGE Media Network.

But What Are They Saying? ‘Evening at the Talk House’

February 19th, 2017 Comments off

by Ryan Leeds

The cast of 'Evening at The Talk House.' (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

The cast of ‘Evening at The Talk House.’ (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

Have you ever been caught at a cocktail party with someone who prattles on about people and events and in the middle you think to yourself, “Where are they going with this and what are they even talking about?” The chatty speaker continues the garrulous conversation and assumes that you know exactly who he/she is referencing, but in all honesty, you haven’t a clue. Eventually, you lock into a detached, hypnotic glaze of apathy. Then, your mind drifts to the hors d’oeuvres and as you glance down at your empty glass, you silently pray for the proper moment when you can politely excuse yourself for snacks and a refill.

This is primarily the same response I had at various points throughout playwright and actor Wallace Shawn’s play Evening at the Talk House, the starry Off Broadway offering from The New Group and director Scott Elliott.

Shawn’s blurry examination on the state of theater and morality takes place in what Robert (Matthew Broderick) describes as “the almost-legendary, wonderfully quiet and genteel club, known far and wide at one time for its delicious and generously-sized snacks, some of them pleasantly sautéed, some delightfully freezing cold, all rather charming and unexpected.” The inordinate description could economically be summarized as “an old hangout with good food.” This is just one example of Shawn’s excessive musings, spoken near the top of the show during Robert’s 9-page opening monologue.

Robert and his former colleagues have gathered at The Talk House for a reunion. Ten years prior, Robert wrote “the not-terribly-successful theatrical masterpiece Midnight in a Clearing with Moon and Stars.” Now, they have all come back to their cherished haunt to discuss the show, their pasts, and their socio-political differences. Nellie (Jill Eikenberry) is the warm and caring manager at the now out of fashion club, while Jane (Annapurna Sriram), a once promising actress who starred in Robert’s play, waits tables there. Annette (Claudia Shear) served as the show’s wardrobe supervisor and is currently a freelance tailor. Bill (Michael Tucker) produced the play and has gone on to become a talent agent. Tom (Larry Pine) is Robert’s golden boy who starred in his play and is now a huge television star. The venue location was chosen by Ted (John Epperson), a man whose life led him to compose advertising music. Ted provided the music for Midnight and throughout Evening at the Talk House and lends his beautiful piano skills in a few reflective moments of song. Epperson, who was once the rehearsal pianist for the American Ballet Theater and created the popular female impersonation persona Lypsinka, creates an appropriately reflective and sweet, understated performance.

Matthew Broderick and Annapurna Sriram in 'Evening at The Talk House.' (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

Matthew Broderick and Annapurna Sriram in ‘Evening at The Talk House.’ (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

As patrons enter the theater for Evening at the Talk House, the talented cast is already onstage, mingling with one another and the audience. As we took our seats, my friend leaned over and asked, “Is Wallace Shawn wearing pajamas?” Indeed he was. Shortly thereafter, we learned why from Robert. Shawn’s character, Dick, was once a well-known actor, appearing in Midnight and the hit television series Carlos and Jenny but has become a washed-up, overweight, alcoholic whom people have discounted and/or disposed. Dick has taken up temporary residency in a room above the Talk House and stumbles into the soiree wearing a battered sport coat and loungewear. It becomes clear that the working relationship between Robert and Dick was always strained and neither is particularly thrilled to be in each other’s company.

As the night unfolds, comments are made regarding the lack of plays that are now being produced, the support that is waning for them and a general longing for the way things used to be. In Shawn’s typical writing style, he later drifts into absurdist territory as his characters pose philosophical questions on who should live and who should die. Annette reveals that she earns extra money “targeting,” a practice where lists are reviewed and she “selects the individuals who need to be killed.” Jane is also involved in the practice.

It’s no huge revelation that Shawn would offer commentary on the topic of human extermination. Given his participation in the controversial Jewish Voice for Peace and his pro-Palestinian support, he poses a crucial question about who should decide the value of human life. To that end, I tip my hat. All too often, liberal voices who espouse compassion and love, opt to silence opposition. I applaud his bold choice to portray both sides of the issue. Still, it’s not clear what he is trying to convey: Is Evening at the Talk House about the death of theater or debating the deaths of individuals? In order to make an impact, it should be one or the other and much of the extraneous chatter should be trimmed. As it stands, this is one evening that is still trying to talk its way toward an intellectual bullseye.

Evening at the Talk House
Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street, NYC
Through March 12

Ryan Leeds is a freelance theatre journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.

 

 

 

If You Could See Her Now: ‘Sweet Charity’

November 20th, 2016 Comments off
The New Group's 'Sweet Charity.' (Photo: Monique Carbon via The Broadway Blog.)

The New Group’s ‘Sweet Charity.’ (Photo: Monique Carbon via The Broadway Blog.)

It’s a full circle moment in the career of Sutton Foster, who stars in The New Group’s intimate and beautifully staged revival of Sweet Charity. Foster’s breakout role came in 2002 when she won the Tony Award for Thoroughly Modern Millie, playing a girl who arrives in New York City looking to marry for money but discovering love instead. Charity, on the other hand, is desperately on the lookout for love but only seems to attract crooks and cheaters. Working as a dance hall girl at the Fandango Ballroom, her naiveté is a source of constant teasing from Nickie (Asmeret Ghebremichael), Helene (Emily Padgett), and the other dancers, but Charity’s bright-eyed enthusiasm enables her to weather many a storm of musical comedy.

With a book by Neil Simon and score by Cy Coleman (music) and Dorothy Fields (lyrics), Sweet Charity delivers a charming throwback vibe. Bob Fosse originally conceived, directed, and choreographed the Broadway production more than 50 years ago, casting his wife Gwen Verdon in the title role. (Shirley MacLaine starred in the film version). Leigh Silverman (Violet, Kung Fu) directs this incarnation with choreography by Joshua Bergasse (On the Town).

The New Group's 'Sweet Charity.' (Photo: Monique Carbon via The Broadway Blog.)

The New Group’s ‘Sweet Charity.’ (Photo: Monique Carbon via The Broadway Blog.)

Streamlining the cast to a dozen (the original had 30 actors), the creative team puts Charity center stage amid a whirlwind of changing costumes and wigs, creatively designed by Clint Ramos and Charles G. LaPointe respectively). Foster, now with 11 Broadway credits to her name and starring in TV Land’s hit series Younger, carries it with goofy and heartfelt effervescence.

After recovering from her latest break-up, Charity finds herself in the midst of a celebrity brawl and in the presence of Italian film star Vittorio Vidal (Joel Perez). To make his girlfriend Ursula (Nikka Graff Lanzarone) jealous, Vittorio invites Charity into a posh nightclub and then back to his penthouse apartment. Comedic genius ensues as Ursula arrives and Charity hides out in the closet. Foster, evoking some of the best comedy shtick of the era in the spirit of Carol Burnett and Lucille Ball, is brilliantly on point with her comedic timing.

After that debacle and with the revelation that there might be more to life than the dancehall, Charity heads to the local Y to seek out inspiration. She meets Oscar (Shuler Hensley) in the lobby as he’s en route to group analysis, and the pair become trapped in the elevator. This time it’s Hensley’s turn to chew the scenery in a brilliantly staged panic attack.

Sutton Foster and Joel Perez in 'Sweet Charity." (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

Sutton Foster and Joel Perez in ‘Sweet Charity.” (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

Charity and Oscar begin a brief romance, but she’s determined to come clean regarding her career. He’s one step ahead of her though, and just as Charity thinks she’s found the man of her dreams, Oscar reveals that he’s incapable of accepting her sordid past. The original production ended on an upbeat note, but The New Group’s revival wisely shuffles some material in the second act, putting Charity’s 11 o’clock number, “Where Am I Going?” as a final soliloquy for the girl so desperately in search of love.

Foster, who has danced her way to two Tony Awards, chooses to sit firmly in the pocket of Charity’s endearing quirkiness. That’s not to say that she doesn’t tap out clean pullbacks in “If My Friends Could See Me Now” or kick to her nose during “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This”—but her movement is informed by Charity’s awkward charm.

Emily Padgett, Sutton Foster, Asmeret Ghebremichael in 'Sweet Charity.' (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

Emily Padgett, Sutton Foster, Asmeret Ghebremichael in ‘Sweet Charity.’ (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

As her romantic foils, Joel Perez (Fun Home) plays most of the male principal roles in the show and delivers an impressive tour de force performance, diving in and out of accents as a one-man-band version of 1960s New York City. And as the affably neurotic Oscar, Hensley is huggabley endearing, even as the unexpected heartbreaker.

Silverman stages wisely within the intimate Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre. Bergasse’s choreography dutifully nods to Fosse on occasion, but also breathes new life into famous dance sequences like “Big Spender” (practically haunting in its simplicity) and “Rich Man’s Frug.”

But the evening belongs to Sutton Foster, who puts her stamp on one of the great musical comedy roles of the 20th century.

Sweet Charity
The New Group
Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
Through January 8

Excavating the American Dream: The New Group’s ‘Buried Child’

March 3rd, 2016 Comments off
(l to r) Paul Sparks, Ed Harris and Amy Madigan in 'Buried Child.' (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

(l to r) Paul Sparks, Ed Harris and Amy Madigan in ‘Buried Child.’ (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

It is not easy to watch The New Group’s revival of Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Buried Child. Originally produced in San Francisco, then New York City, in 1978, the play was later revived in 1996 on Broadway, earning accolades (the production was a transfer from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre.) Now, a decade later, director Scott Elliott helms this complex work that tackles the disintegration of an American family during the agricultural and economic wasteland of the 1970s.

Ed Harris (four-time Academy Award nominee) and Amy Madigan (The Jacksonian, A Streetcar Named Desire) lead the cast in Shepard’s postmodern play that teeters on realism while weaving in surrealistic layerings of symbolism and purposefully repetitive passages of text. As the withering patriarch Dodge, Harris nails this delicate balance, as does Madigan, as his churchgoing wife, Halie, who functions in a world of the past while casting aside the horrific and incestuous happenings that undermine their children.

The sons, Tilden (Paul Sparks) and Bradley (Rich Sommer), reside at the family farmhouse, in a sort of hazy nonexistence. It’s only when Tilden’s son, Vince (Nat Wolff) shows up with his girlfriend Shelly (Taissa Farmiga) that the family quilt begins to quickly unravel. Without delivering any spoilers, let’s just say that the existing family unit is none too eager to welcome Vince back to the farm. And while he dashes off to buy booze for Dodge, his girlfriend’s inquisitive nature helps usher some skeletons out of the closet. Halie returns to the house with Father Dewis (Larry Pine) to find havoc in the household, and ultimately a tragic truth, deeply buried (both literally and figuratively), finally comes to light.

While Harris and Madigan are deft at navigating Shepard’s nuanced style, Wolff and Farmiga struggle to find their footing. Emotions are distilled to screaming and flippant rebuttals, leaving these integral characters as mere cut-outs against an in-depth backdrop.

This play won’t be everyone’s theatrical cup of tea. It’s uncomfortable subject matter and Shepard’s unforgiving delivery of it makes for a squeamish 90 minutes. But if you can take it, there’s something to unearth in Buried Child.

Here’s what other critics are saying:

“Directed by Scott Elliott and anchored by a deeply textured yet effortless performance by Ed Harris, the revival doesn’t strain for shock, emphasizing ordinary rather than grotesque aspects of its characters’ lives. . . I still want to see a bolder, more apocalyptic revival of this big (yet small) play, with a uniformly strong cast, knockout visuals and a directorial vision that finds more exciting ways to unlock the horror and madness at its core. Still, while this may not be the finest Buried Child you’ll see, the play only comes around every 20 years, and it’s worth a homecoming.” David Cote – Time Out New York

“Some of its shock value has worn off, but “Buried Child” (which has not been seen in New York in two decades) remains a gritty, mysterious, often engrossing portrait of domestic life gone to hell, as demonstrated by Scott Elliott’s well-acted Off-Broadway revival on behalf of the New Group.” Matt Windman – amNew York

“Harris’ unforced and potent performance in the New Group’s revival of Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer-winning 1978 drama makes this engaging but unevenly acted production worthwhile. . . Buried Child isn’t exactly subtle but it still grabs and sends shivers.” Joe Dziemianowicz – Daily News

Buried Child
Presented by The New Group
The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
Through April 3

Matthew Wexler is the Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on social media at @roodeloo

A Gay Ol’ Time: Off Broadway’s Latest Trend

December 1st, 2015 Comments off

Broadway Blog editor Matthew Wexler review Dada Woof Papa Hot and Steve.

(l to r) Alex Hurt, John Benjamin Hickey, Stephen Plunkett, and Parick Breen in 'Dada Woof Papa Hot.' (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

(l to r) Alex Hurt, John Benjamin Hickey, Stephen Plunkett, and Parick Breen in ‘Dada Woof Papa Hot.’ (photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Two gay-themed plays are on the boards this fall, so if you’re looking for baby daddies and aging chorus boys, there’s no better time to be going to the theatre. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for new works that transcend a certain demographic (in which this reviewer belongs), it might be a stretch to see beyond some of the one-note themes portrayed in these post-Stonewell tales of love and life.

(l to r) Patrick Breen and John Benjamin Hickey in 'Dada Woof Papa Hot.' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog)

(l to r) Patrick Breen and John Benjamin Hickey in ‘Dada Woof Papa Hot.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog)

Dada Woof Papa Hot by Peter Parnell tackles gay parenting set in the bourgeois world of New York City’s upper middle class—though given John Lee Beatty’s ingenious set including a trendy restaurant, Fire Island share, and multi-room apartment on the Upper West Side—we should all be so lucky. Rob (Patrick Breen) and Alan (John Benjamin Hickey) are in the midst of raising a toddler and struggling with their own mid-life crises when they meet a younger gay couple, Jason (Alex Hurt) and Scott (Stephen Plunkett) at a gay parenting group. They become enamored with the fresh-faced duo and friendships begin, only to be derailed by an expected infidelity. But the gays aren’t the only ones bored playing house. Straight friends Serena (Kellie Overbey) and Michael (John Pankow) find themselves in a similar situation—struggling to keep the spark in their marriage while raising little ones. Michael’s wandering eye lands on Julia (Tammy Blanchard), a real Housewife of New York-type that also finds herself in a withering marriage.

And so the revelations begin amid contemporary quips full of gay vernacular and child rearing. Parnell’s script is filled with zippy one-liners:

“By the way, I still can’t get used to young gay guys using that word as a verb instead of a noun.”

“Which word?”

“Bottomed. ‘I bottomed for him,’ instead of ‘I’m a bottom.’”

The subscriber base at Lincoln Center and gay-heavy audience chuckle throughout, as the play jumps through the revelatory hoops of indiscretion and the looming question of “Is this it?”

Mr. Breen and Mr. Hickey breathe life into their characters as they suffer through revealed infidelities and the subsequent consequences. There are interesting riffs that explore what their life was versus what it has become: surviving the AIDS crisis, marriage equality, and parenthood. The younger pair doesn’t fare as well: Mr. Hurt as an artist with a monotonous cadence and penchant for extramarital activities, and Mr. Plunkett as his conservative, quasi-Republican counterpart. Gratuitous Fire Island nudity also feels contrived and begs the question, “Is this it?”

Dada Woof Papa Hot does offers smatterings that may remind of you of the works of Terrence McNally (Love! Valor! Compassion!) or A.R. Gurney (Children). But where those playwrights’ works tend to transcend circumstance and offer rich characterizations and broader social commentary, Dada Woof Papa Hot feels as though its relevance is as fleeting as its intermissionless running time.

(l to r) Malcolm Gets, Jerry Dixon, Mario Cantone and Matt McGrath in 'Steve.' (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog)

(l to r) Malcolm Gets, Jerry Dixon, Mario Cantone and Matt McGrath in ‘Steve.’ (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog)

The New Group has its hands on another gay play, Steve, by Mark Gerrard—ironically also set in Manhattan as well as Fire Island (one wonders if us gays have been exiled to a self-proclaimed East Coast ghetto left only with a shortlist of Michelin star restaurants and Andrew Christian underwear). But whereas Dada Woof Papa Hot suffocates in its preciousness, Steve blows the top off in an Ethel Merman-style throwdown that only escalates as the play continues.

Stephen (Malcolm Gets) and Steven (Matt McGrath) gather at a restaurant for the latter’s birthday with besties Carrie (Ashlie Atkinson) and fellow gay couple Matt (Mario Cantone) and Brian (Jerry Dixon). Little does Stephen know, but his partner has been privy to texting indiscretions thanks to their toddler’s penchant for stealing electronic equipment. The table becomes smitten with their aspiring Argentinian dancer/waiter, Esteban (Francisco Prior Garat)—especially Steven, who through the course of the play dabbles in his own extramarital affairs.

(l to r) Matt McGrath, Ashlie Atkinson and Francisco Pryor Garat in 'Steve.' (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

(l to r) Matt McGrath, Ashlie Atkinson and Francisco Pryor Garat in ‘Steve.’ (Photo: Monique Carboni via The Broadway Blog.)

Where Steve succeeds is in its innovative theatrical convention, which explores what we want to say versus what we really say in our lives. Much of the dialogue is wickedly and hilariously biting, peppered with more musical theater references than a late-night YouTube binge of all the various actresses who have played Elphaba in Wicked (also the name of Steven and Stephen’s cat).

Director Cynthia Nixon, who directed Rasheeda Speaking for The New Group last season, approaches the piece with a surgeon’s precision and demands such intent from the well-cast ensemble. Mr. McGrath steers the ship as the narcissistic Steven, failing to acknowledge that his best friend, Carrie, is dying of cancer. Ms. Atkinson is much more than a sidekick novelty, delivering one-liners as well as heartfelt gravitas with equal sincerity. The rest of the cast follows suit, including a tech-savvy monologue by Mr. Getz, who brilliantly navigates sexting while simultaneously having a phone conversation with his mother.

Steve is tender and brassy, and perhaps sometimes too shrill for its own good. The musical theater references can become exhausting and are reinforced by an unnecessary pre show consisting of a cast sing-a-long and a curtain call lifted from The Sound of Music. It casts a thin veneer over the play, which otherwise delivers plenty of heart and humanity.

Dada Woof Papa Hot
Lincoln Center Theater – Mitzi E. Newhouse
150 West 65th Street
Through January 3

Steve
The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
Through January 3

Review: The Jacksonian

November 27th, 2013 Comments off

Contributor Lindsay B . Davis takes a hard look at family disfunction through the lens of award-winning playwright Beth Henley. 

The cast of "Jacksonian." (photo: Monique Carboni)

The cast of “Jacksonian.” (photo: Monique Carboni)

There is a moment in The Jacksonian, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Beth Henley’s latest play presented by The New Group at the Acorn Theatre, when 16-year-old Rosy Perch (newcomer Juliet Brett in a breakthrough performance) sits at a seedy motel bar table hunched over a piece of Baked Alaska. Her face is close to the cake and the whipped cream peaks look like an extension of the acne in full bloom on her face. Rosy picks at it with little interest under the penetrating eye of a lascivious bartender Fred Weber (Bill Pullman) who grabs the plate and fork to suck down a bite of cake himself. This is not a girl who gets to enjoy dessert. Henley (Crimes of the Heart, The Wake of Jamey Foster, The Miss Firecracker Contest) clearly has an appetite for humor in the bleakest of places.

Rosy is heavily burdened by events involving her well-off dentist father Bill (Ed Harris) and stay-at-home mother Susan (Amy Madigan) who are recently separated in her birthday month of May, which leads to Bill taking up residence at The Jacksonian Motel and encountering Fred and his breathy fiancé, hotel maid Eva White (Glenne Headly). The time, Rosy narrates to the audience, is “not Christmas, near around, before, before Christmas…and a murder happened…” This noir tinted murder mystery set in 1964 Jackson, Mississippi between the months of May and December (though recounted through Rosy’s eyes in non linear fashion) goes to dark, twisted places and yet its characters, who do grotesque things with ugly fervor, do not feel the slightest bit evil.

Juliet Brett and Ed Harris in "Jacksonian." (photo: Monique Carboni)

Juliet Brett and Ed Harris in “Jacksonian.” (photo: Monique Carboni)

This is largely due to the dream team of actor heavyweights anchoring the production and their ability to flesh out characters that are impossible to judge or condemn. The operatic Ed Harris (Fool for Love, Taking Sides, Precious Sons plus more than 50 film performances, including Pollock, The Truman Show, and Game Change), as the self proclaimed “painless dentist,” prides himself for treating patients with the latest in mid 20th century anesthesia while getting high as a kite on whatever remains in his toolkit. His spiral into a suffering abyss of booze, chloroform, Novocain, sex, and violence is nauseating, nuanced and guttural. At times, it is also very funny.

Ms. Madigan (A Streetcar Named Desire, The Lucky Spot, Twice in a Lifetime, Field of Dreams), whose Susan speaks as if she has a copy of Betty Friedan’s feminine mystique on her bedside table— “I am not an artist. I am a wife, a mother, a non-entity”—is so powerful on stage, with her triple threat vocal, physical, and emotional heft, that all I can ask is why she doesn’t do more theater. Ms. Headly’s Eva is a floozy working every angle for a dime or, more specifically, a diamond ring. Her fractured innocence and racist Southern ignorance make Eva a very difficult character to watch. I found myself wondering (in between laughs) what desperate circumstances could have lead her to this place, though Henley does not bring any of that back story into the piece.

Pullman (Oleanna, The Goat, Peter & Jerry on Broadway plus an array of films from Spaceballs to Sleepless In Seattle), draws Fred, a character that uses colorful compulsive lies (from his “heart muscular constriction” to his near Guinness record sword swallowing abilities) with sly, constipated charm. He also happens to be running from the law and bonds with Rosy, who finds comfort doing her French homework in his bar as if it is her kitchen table. Their connection is weighted, dangerous. Rosy, with her disheveled hair, frumpy outfits, skin condition and husky voice, is not a pretty girl by any conventional standards and believes her ugliness serves “the good of human kind.” To Fred, she is prey. As the atmosphere grows more chilling, Rosy’s direct addresses to the audience are as central to understanding the story as they are to knowing how it feels to be a teenager who longs and aches to be rescued.

Walt Spangler’s set design is simple and effective. The motel’s bar sits stage right with dark wood and dingy Christmas lights that could be there all year round. Stage left is Bill’s motel room, dank and dismal, while even further stage left sits an ice machine. Open. Scoop. Slam! Characters who use it help sustain the rhythm and tension that director Robert Falls (Artistic Director of The Goodman Theatre whose Broadway directing credits include Desire Under the Elms, Talk Radio, The Rose Tattoo and Long Day’s Journey Into Night) builds into the production. Falls gives his actors ample room to play and makes no apologies for Henley’s darkly comedic script. Together they originated the production at the Geffen Playhouse in 2012 with Harris, Madigan, Pullman and Headly, whose trust and chemistry on stage is reflective of the time spent developing the show out west.

The Jacksonian
The Acorn on Theatre Row
410 West 42nd Street
Through December 22

Lindsay B. Davis is an arts/culture journalist and theater artist living in New York City.