BWW Reviews: Great Performances Can't Save Epic Theatre's Tedious HURLYBURLY
The culture and subcultures of Los Angeles have fascinated the masses for about as long as L.A. has been around. There are countless movies about the movies and moviemaking and the people who spend their lives engaged in that pursuit. Not to mention all the plays and books and songs and everything else. It's a city that has been provided a seemingly endless supply of inspiration over the decades. That is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, there's an endless supply of interesting characters doing anything and everything one can imagine. On the other hand, much of it has been seen, heard and read before.
David Rabe's Hurlyburly, currently presented by Epic Theatre Company at Theatre 82 in Cranston, explores some well-known territory. It's Los Angeles in the 1980s. We're in the apartment of a couple of wanna-be Hollywood players. Vulgar, crude, rough-around-the edges guys who are trying to make it big, or at least make it, in Hollywood. They don't seem to have much real ambition though, or much actual talent, intelligence or qualifications when it comes to achieving their dreams, such as they are. All they actually do is sit around all day and night, drinking, doing drugs and having sex. These are not the bright and shiny celebrity filmmakers of Hollywood. They are the underbelly of the city, and Rabe peels back the surface and exposes all of their nastiness, not to mention their loneliness, paranoia, insecurity, greed and misery.
While that all sounds good, what Rabe also does is drag things out endlessly, using as many unnecessary speeches and monologues as he can. The play is three hours long but it would be more accurate to say that it's three long hours. There are countless moments which do absolutely nothing to advance the story. In fact, the story doesn't really advance much at all over the play's length. Very little actually happens, at least not for a long while. Finally, in the second and third acts, some major events take place, from a near-homicide to something even more tragic. These events have their repercussions, of course, but by the time they happen, the audience is mostly likely not listening or just doesn't care anymore.
This is a play filled with miserable people being miserable and doing miserable things to each other. That can be interesting and entertaining, given the right shape and context. Here, though, Rabe mostly has his characters philosophizing about each other's misery and their own. There are plenty of soapbox moments and Rabe hasn't left much out, as characters espouse their thoughts and feelings on love, family, friendship, fame, karma, destiny, sex and probably some other topics that I missed. There's a message in the heavy-handed payoff at the end, but getting there is just too much of an interminable slog through often meaningless speechifying.
In this production, director Matt Fraza hasn't done himself or his cast any favors. He apparently made the choice that almost every scene, moment and line should be played as if in a drug-induced haze, every character stoned and listless. It's a choice but not a good one, as it slows things down even more. Characters constantly speak in a near-whisper, mumble, or appear to be falling asleep. The staging leans on the clunky side, not always feeling natural or organic, which may have been the point, it's hard to tell. Most of the blocking comes in four varieties only: sit, stand, drink booze, do drugs.
Fraza's cast is uneven and it may be partly the fault of the script and what it gives them to work with. For example, Donna is a homeless teenager who is brought to the guys' apartment by a friend, as something to basically have their way with. We never really get to know her deeper than that. She's mostly there as a plot device, someone for the guys to treat badly and a potential deus ex machina at the play's end. So, actress Betsy Rinaldi does her best with what she's given. Her performance is lively and energetic enough, but there's no depth to her character, which is true of most of the production's performances.
The two other female characters, especially, are given a pretty shallow life, not much more than stereotypes. Bonnie, the slutty exotic dancer, is played with little energy or life by Cherylee Sousa Dumas. Impossible to say whether or not it was the actor or director's choice, but playing the character with such lethargy just makes her uninteresting and tiresome. It seems as if the actress just doesn't want to be there and isn't willing or able to inject any real energy or life into the character. It may be that Dumas is completely willing and able, but was just not directed to do so.
Faring the best of the three female leads is Melissa Sciarra Penick as Darlene, the girlfriend of one of the guys in the apartment. Penick has the most to work with, as her character is given more of a backstory and more of a real life by the playwright. Taking that and running with it, Penick gives a performance that is never listless, she is always charismatic and energized. She also delivers some great moments of dismay, as if she's the only one among the group who wonders how or why she ended up in this world, surrounded by these people.
Among the male leads, the weakest performance comes from Terry Simpson as Artie. At times almost impossible to hear, Simpson spoke in the same tone and volume the entire time, never giving the performance any real levels or the audience a chance to really hear the words. He also seemed bored and disinterested, which may have been part of the performance, an intentional choice. It ended up just making the character dull and seemingly out of place, as if he wasn't even really a part of the play.
As Eddie, one of the two primary characters, Jonathan Fisher's performance varied widely, but he showed signs of real talent and charisma toward the play's end. Most of the first two-thirds, he seemed to be sleepwalking through the performance, mostly coming across as boring and lacking in any energy or life. Eddie is a difficult character to sympathize with or root for and it was hard to tell how Fisher was really trying to portray him. Ambiguity and complexity are good and desireable qualities in a character but Fisher never really explores that complexity, mostly just playing either stoned or pissed off or both.
Jason Quinn gets most of the play's best lines and the only real laughs as Mickey. Quinn gives one of the play's two best performances as a man with a quiet demeanor and an easy going charm, perhaps the most grounded of the bunch. He's also the most likable of the characters, helped in no small part by Quinn's natural charisma and likeability. Quinn also gives the role some real attitude and believable vitality in the play's final moments.
In the best performance of the production, David De Almo plays Phil, perhaps the most miserable of the miserable bunch. Phil is confused, complex and filled with desperation, which he acts upon quite frequently. De Almo does an excellent job portraying all of these emotions, ups and downs, highs and lows, believably and with some real acting talent. The most truthful emotional moments of the play are his and there's really no one else in the cast who comes close. Love or hate Phil, the audience at least pays attention to him, cares one way or the other about him and is interested in what he's saying or doing, and that is largely due to De Almo's charismatic performance.
One or two great performances aside, Hurlyburly is a difficult play to recommend, at least as far as this production goes. A play this long and verbose needs an entire cast full of highly energized actors with unusual and exceptional charisma and presence. And those actors need to be able to connect with the audience on every level, draw them in, hold them in rapt attention and keep them there. Unfortunately, this production just isn't up to that task.
Hurlyburly runs through April 26th at Artists' Exchange/Theatre 82, located at 82 Rolfe Square in Cranston, RI. Tickets are available through www.epictheatreri.org or www.artists-exchange.org. Tickets are general admission and are $15 or $12 for seniors and students. Showtimes are at 8:00pm on Friday and Saturday night, April 18/19th and 25/26th.
Pictured: Besty Rinaldi and Jonathan Fisher. Photo by Kevin Broccoli.