Thursday, February 20, 2014

Hurlyburly by David Rabe in a Powerful Revival at The Chain Theatre

L-R: Brandon Scott Hughes and Kirk Gostkowski in HURLYBURLY.  Photo by Abi Classey..
To my mind, Variations Theatre Group (VTG) is one of the very best off off Broadway companies around and, if you have to trek out to Long Island City to see their productions (which, unfortunately for those of you who are cloistered Manhattanites, you will), I think you’ll find that it’s well worth your while to do so..  Over the past four years, I have attended performances of VTG’s revivals of both The Shape of Things and Some Girl(s) by Neil LaBute, Fool for Love by Sam Shepard, and After the Fall by Arthur Miller - all starring Kirk Gostkowski and all but one directed by Rich Ferraioli, VTG’s co-founders and co-Artistic Directors - and they have been uniformly terrific.
David Rabe’s Hurlyburly, the latest in VTG’s string of productions of powerful gritty plays that don’t seem to be revived nearly often enough, has just opened at the Chain Theatre on 45th Road, just over the bridge in Long Island City, for a limited run through March 1.  Directed by Ferraioli and starring Gostkowski, this is a very courageous project: in its original Broadway incarnation in 1984, Hurlyburly was directed by Mike Nichols and featured an extraordinary cast consisting of William Hurt, Ron Silver, Harvey Keitel, Jerry Stiller, Judith Ivey, Sigourney Weaver and Cynthia Nixon.  That is quite a cast to live up to but all that star power failed to dissuade VTG from going ahead with this revival.  And I’m glad they did.  As it turns out, the VTG revival is a powerful production that will only further enhance VTG’s well-earned reputation.

Hurlyburly is a black comedy set in Hollywood in the 1980s – a world of drugs, decadence, and debauchery.  It is the tale of four self-destructive, jaded, drug and sex addicted misogynists, all hoping to make it in the film industry, insensitive to the needs of others, and oblivious to the fact that even if they do succeed in gaining the world, if really might not be worth it if, in the process, they lose their own souls.

Eddie (Kirk Gostkowski) is a narcissistic, cocaine-addicted, somewhat paranoid casting director, estranged from his wife and so self-obsessed as to be almost solipsistic in his outlook on life.  The only question that pervades his existence seems to be: “How does it pertain to me?”  In his search for meaning, he seeks out dictionary definitions, constructs abstract faulty syllogisms, and resorts to a trivial, almost kabalistic, approach to language through anagrams and numerology.
Eddie’s roommate, Mickey (Deven Anderson) is as self-centered and manipulative as Eddie is, but his personality is quite different.  He is cold, aloof, unfeeling and unemotional, indeed almost autistic in his relationship to others.  Where Eddie selfishly and consistently chooses to put his own feelings ahead of anyone else’s, Mickey never even seems to consider that others might have any feelings of their own at all.  When Mickey sleeps with Eddie’s girlfriend, Darlene (Christina Elise Perry), It never enters his mind that Eddie might be upset by it.  And when he returns Darlene to Eddie days later, it is with no regard for Darlene’s feelings in the matter.

Phil (Brandon Scott Hughes) is Eddie’s best friend and Mickey’s polar opposite.  He is a passionate actor wannabe, an ex-con, a ball of fury, an accident waiting to happen.  His penchant for violence is such that in the course of the three hour play, he batters his wife Susie; throws another woman, Bonnie (Jacklyn Collier) from a moving car; smashes in the face of Donna (Rachel Cora) in a mindless exhibition of what football is all about; threatens more than one of his male friends with violence; and crashes a second car.

Artie (Chris Harcum) is a blur, or maybe really no more than a smudge, in all their lives, generally passing through in what appears to be a continual alcoholic or drug-induced stupor.  He is envious of Phil and Eddie’s friendship and appears to be the quintessential loser although, as things ultimately turn out, he is the only one who seems to achieve at least a modicum of success, both in finally getting the production deal he’d been seeking and in establishing what might turn out to be the beginnings of a normal relationship with Bonnie.

The four men differ greatly in personality but share certain traits – including their misogyny and their sense of entitlement where women and sex are concerned.  The women, on the other hand, don’t seem to be nearly as concerned about manipulating or using the men in their lives; rather, they appear content  simply to be there to be used and they are more than complicit in their sexual relationships.  Thus Donna (the spacey teenage girl who Artie finds in his elevator is more than happy to be his sex toy for awhile and then to be handed off by him to perform the same role for Eddie and Phil.  Bonnie, barely a level higher than Donna in sophistication, is a single mother and stripper, delighted to have sex with just about anybody.  And Darlene, who might be described as the most discriminating of the three, may not automatically make herself sexually available to anyone – but that doesn’t mean she necessarily limits her affections to any one man at a time either.  Indeed, two would seem to be more her speed.

This is a well-directed and well-performed powerful, gritty play, depicting the levels of depravity to which men (and women) may descend and, as such, it won’t appeal to everyone’s taste.  It is certainly not “family entertainment” and I wouldn’t advise taking the kids to see it.  But for adults with strong stomachs and a love of good theatre, it’s really not to be missed.

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