This past week, your Tatler had a chance to see The Garbologists at City Theatre and Misery at barebones productions. Both feature finely honed performances, inventive scenic designs, and fantastic sound design; each is also, in its own way, about an odd couple. The similarities end there.

In Lindsay Joelle’s new play The Garbologists, the mismatch is between veteran sanitation worker Danny (Jason Babinsky) and rookie Marlowe (Bria Walker), who has been assigned to Danny’s truck for training. He’s a chatty extrovert who’s not good with boundaries; she’s a taciturn loner with high walls. He’s an open book – transparent about the difficulties in his personal life, which include a TRO filed against him by his ex-wife and their conflict over custody of their son – while she is something of a mystery – an Ivy-league graduate who has opted for a career in sanitation. As he teaches her the tricks of the trade, he begins to chip away at her armor, and by play’s end each has come to trust the other with their most painful confidences.

The play is mostly a light comedy, although it pulls on some sober threads. Chief among these is  the transience of existence, and of the ways our garbage becomes a marker for loss. Danny is an expert at “reading” the trash left out for them to pick up: he can tell the difference between a normal pile of garbage, and one that signals someone has died, moved, or been evicted. His years in the service make him insouciant about what those latter piles mean to the people who dragged them out to the curb; Marlowe, on the other hand, keenly feels the weight of the discards and the unknown stories behind them. In the world of the play, his job becomes teaching her not only how to follow the “house rules” of the job, but also how to let go and move on. 

L to R: Jason Babinsky and Bria Walker. Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

The snazzy production features a moving cab of a garbage truck, complete with lights, and not one but two “back ends,” one of which even has a clever working mechanism to scrape the garbage from the hopper into the truck (scenic design by Narelle Sissons); the excellent sound design by Karin Graybash fills out the illusion of a garbage truck in action. Although for the most part Joelle’s characters come across more like types than fully fleshed out human beings, under Monteze Freeland’s direction Babinsky and Walker connect genially and take their characters on a believable journey from friction to friendship.

L to R: Sheila McKenna and Davis Whalen. photo by Jeff Swensen, courtesy barebones productions.

The trajectory of the plot of Misery goes in the opposite direction, from friendliness to (way beyond) friction. Here the “odd couple” is a romance novelist named Paul Sheldon (David Whalen), and his “number one fan,” Annie Wilkes (Sheila McKenna). Paul wakes in her home after he has been in an incapacitating car accident, and he is grateful at first for the seemingly daffy and kind Good Samaritan’s aid and nursing. But it quickly becomes clear that she is a deranged psychopath who is keeping him prisoner, and who has no qualms about tormenting him to keep him in line. When she discovers that in the final installment of his series he has killed off her beloved protagonist, Misery Chastain, she forces him to write a sequel that brings the character back to life; he does so with the understanding that writing the novel may be the only way to save his own life. You may already know this story: it’s adapted by William Goldman from the 1987 Stephen King novel, and was made into a film (also scripted by Goldman) in 1990.

Reader, I’ll be honest: I approached this production with trepidation. I don’t love horror, and I worried that Misery would be too graphically violent for my taste. But though there are moments of physical assault, the play is primarily a psychological thriller, and it’s a beautifully crafted one to boot. Goldman’s writing is tight and suspenseful, and he creates a cat and mouse dynamic between Annie and Paul that keeps you on the edge of your seat. 

The barebones production, directed by Patrick Jordan, is both chillingly suspenseful and shockingly funny. Scenic design by Tony Ferrieri and sound design by Matthew Nielson contribute mightily to the suspense: Ferrieri’s rotating set comes alive during a couple of heartpounding scenes in which Paul escapes from his room in a wheelchair to explore the rest of Annie’s twee little house, and Nielson’s ominous music ratchets up the tension as Paul frantically tries to get back to his room before Annie returns. Steve Tolan’s special effects take credit for much of the comedy: the gore on view is frankly awful, but also (as in so many horror films) so outrageous that it shades into humor. 

Whalen and McKenna are well-matched and work beautifully together to intensify the stakes of their conflict. Both actors give their characters a sly intelligence that fuels not only their conflict but also the suspense over its outcome, and while it seems that Paul, the accomplished novelist, should have the upper hand over the provincial and unsophisticated Annie, McKenna plays Annie as a woman who is far cannier than she lets on. For a good deal of the play, Whalen is trapped in a bed – no easy task for an actor – and he uses the immobilization to good effect in conveying Paul’s pain, helplessness, and growing terror. His first attempt to get out of bed is excruciating to watch; equally excruciating is witnessing his realization that Annie is more diabolical than she appears (and this is a realization he, and we, come to repeatedly). As Annie, McKenna gives a whole new spin on crazy, shifting with jarring dispatch from adoring reader to punitive torturer to solicitous caregiver, and the more of Annie’s twisted obsession she reveals, the creepier she gets. 

Harrowing as the scenario of Misery may be, the production is a downright thrill to watch, with a cathartic ending that won’t surprise anyone, and that may be all the more sweet now that we, too, have all been released from our own long covid-captivity.