“None of us is very far from the murderer who skulks his way through Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.” So opines Carl (Philip Winters), a Russian Lit professor. And he should know: he fills his journals with thoughts of killing the nondescript Brad (Michael Fuller), an appliance repairman he barely knows, simply because he finds him unbearably dull. But unlike Roskolnikov, Carl would never act on that impulse. Or would he?
That each of us has a ‘devil inside’ is the subject of David Lindsay-Abaire’s frenzied black comedy, which combines the outrageous blood-shedding of a Martin McDonough play (think Lieutenant of Inishmore) with the farcical energy of a Joe Orton comedy, packing these into a whodunit plot that leaves none of its characters innocent or unscathed in the end.
Lindsay-Abaire concocts the story of this play by dropping a series of Easter Eggs along a convoluted path, each of which explodes spectacularly at some point in the last ten or fifteen minutes of the play. This is the kind of play that makes alert and attentive audience members feel smart, as clues dropped in early scenes lead to “ah-ha!” moments later in the play; forget which character told which story from their personal history (as, I’ll confess, I did at one point) and you’ll fall behind. Their stories nest inside each other like an intricately carved Russian Matryoshka doll (one of which also makes an appearance in the course of the play), interlocking in a series of coincidences that center on a fourteen-year-old mystery for which each of the characters has a tiny piece of the puzzle.
The mystery in question involves the murder, in the Poconos, of the 400-lb father of Gene Slater (Cav O’Leary) and husband of Mrs. Slater (Terry Wickline). For unexplained reasons, his feet were chopped from his body; Mrs. Slater has waited until Gene reached his twenty-first birthday to reveal the fact that his father had been murdered and gift him the jar containing his dad’s enormous feet. Gene, however, is more interested in nailing daredevil skateboard tricks and flirting with Caitlin (Hayley Nielsen), who, in turn, is in love with both Russian Literature and her Russian Lit professor, Carl. Meanwhile, Carl has become obsessed with thoughts of murdering the excruciatingly uninteresting one-footed Brad, who is putting up the mysterious Lily (Daina Michelle Griffiths), an artist who has a strange fascination with feet as well as secretive reasons for having returned to the Lower East Side setting for the play. (Feet – both attached and unattached – are a theme in this play, as are dogs, Russia, and devils). Inconveniently – or perhaps conveniently – the city’s municipal services are all on strike, so not only do wild dogs run amok in the accumulating garbage on the city streets, but there are no police to intervene as the characters begin to machinate against each other in all sorts of impulsive ways. Given that the whole trick of the play lies in how it unwinds the reasons behind those machinations, I won’t give any more of the plot away.
David Lindsay-Abaire is an accomplished playwright, but this is one of his earlier works, and it shows. Crazily complicated as the plot is, the dialogue struggles to be funny, and in places the dark threatens to overwhelm the comedy. Moreover, wild as the play’s shenanigans are, the sum total of its parts is conspicuously unsatisfying; when you get to the end, you’re left with the strong feeling that (to steal from Gertrude Stein) there’s no “there there.”
Nevertheless, director Kim Martin does a fine job of drawing out laughs through bold strokes in the staging, and her cast commits to a broad, farcical playing style that serves the outrageousness of the play’s premise well. Particularly excellent in that commitment are Nielsen, as the Anna Karenina-wannabe coed; Winters, as the irascible professor; and Fuller, whose Brad morphs from beige to crazed in the course of the play. The scenic design, by Tucker Topel, solves the problem of the play’s multiple locales with ingenious efficiency, allowing the action to move at a clip without a need for anyone to ever move a stick of furniture. I could wish that every young director I know might see this production just to learn from its swift transitions, which derive much of their effect from Andrew David Ostrowski’s on-the-money lighting design and Steve Shapiro’s sharp sound design.