by Charles Isherwood on January 29, 2008
NEW HAVEN — With the dollar plummeting in world markets, a recession looming and America-bashing on the rise abroad, the time is ripe for plays discussing the sick soul of the country and offering prescriptions for its cure. One of the first out of the gate is “The Evildoers” by David Adjmi, having its world premiere at the Yale Repertory Theater here in a slick, hard-charging production
Mr. Adjmi, an emerging writer who will follow “The Evildoers” with another new play in the spring at the Woolly Mammoth Theater in Washington, takes the microcosmic approach by focusing on a pair of troubled marriages. Bad marriages have long made for good theater, heaven knows, and “The Evildoers” contains several lively patches of slashingly funny dialogue.
But as the play progresses, its mixture of high ambitions and lurid details begins to curdle. The title is presumably an ironic reference to George W. Bush’s famous use of this King Jamesian term for bad guys. In Mr. Adjmi’s contrasting view, the bad guys are not out there but right here at home. He clearly believes that American society is suffering — to use a term that crops up frequently — a loss of spiritual health, a proposition many might agree with. But his quasi-apocalyptic, quasi-mystical and wholly grotesque analysis of the national malaise lacks both subtlety and sense.
The opening scene, set in a swanky Manhattan restaurant with apparently deplorable service, rings with echoes of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Stephen Barker Turner and Johanna Day play George and Martha to Matt McGrath’s Nick and Samantha Soule’s Honey, although in Mr. Adjmi’s rewrite it will be the apparently mild-mannered Nick figure, Mr. McGrath’s Martin, who dedicates himself to the destruction of comforting illusions.
Jerry (Mr. Turner), a therapist, is deep in his cups and waxing philosophic. “People aren’t authentic, that’s the problem, you know,” he says. “And, er, you know they’re all circling this — terrible abyss of pain. And it’s our job to get inside of that, you see? I mean, if we can’t enter people’s suffering, then we suffer.”
His acidulous wife, Carol (Ms. Day), calls repeatedly for the check, to no purpose, in between nasty cracks at Martin’s mousy wife, Judy (Ms. Soule), and morsels of tart commentary about the disintegrating culture.
“I mean, yes, we’re sinking,” she coolly opines, “but the sinking can go on for eons and nothing changes.”
But Martin is apparently stung by both Jerry’s insight and by Carol’s cynicism about, among other things, the institution of marriage. (One of Mr. Adjmi’s brightest punch lines is the revelation of her vocation.) He ends the evening by threatening to confiscate Carol’s wedding ring and then by excoriating his cowering wife with a reference to a previous oyster metaphor:
“I was promised a pearl and I got grit; now it’s time for the shucking.”
Flaying would perhaps be a more apposite term. And Martin, on a quest for emotional truth, will not stop at abandoning his own marriage but insists on awakening his friends to the rot at the heart of theirs.
The rending of the veils of delusion that shroud abysses of unhappiness is a durable enough theme, but Mr. Adjmi’s elucidation of it in “The Evildoers” never accrues much credibility, either emotional or literal. Martin’s instantaneous discovery of his homosexuality — via a late-night encounter on the subway that leads to a few days of bliss with a married architect — feels contrived and strangely retrograde. (It is a little late in the day to be using this device as a major mode of self-revelation.)
And Martin’s attempts to seduce his friend come across as lunatic, unless he believes that in grabbing Jerry’s crotch he is inflicting on him the suffering that the men seem to believe offers the path to spiritual redemption.
I’m afraid Martin is meant to be some sort of holy madman who must destroy in order to save. He and Jerry engage in long discussions of biblical texts, focusing on the purpose of pain and how one best loves one’s enemy, and for that matter one’s country.
“If you really embrace your country Carol you’d see that it has to break before it moves forward,” Martin says ominously. The atmosphere of portent only thickens in the play’s last scene, which finds a shattered Jerry hunkered down over a hand-held video game as the apocalypse appears to hit the island of Manhattan.
With a sleek set by Riccardo Hernandez and stylish costumes by Susan Hilferty, the production is first-class. The actors all give vivid performances. Ms. Day, however, is perhaps a little too vivid. Carol is so cuttingly abrasive that her awful comeuppance — one of the more gruesome acts of violence I’ve seen simulated on a stage — almost comes as a relief.
Mr. Adjmi is certainly skilled at writing dialogue that both captures and softly lampoons the fluid eloquence and showy wit that perfumes the air at Manhattan restaurants and dining rooms. Seasoning his writing with clever, high-toned references to Franz Kline and Gibbon and much else, he seeks to drive home the point that the country’s privileged classes have been chattering away about thread counts while Rome burns. But the flashy dialogue and fashionably violent imagery can’t mask the play’s fundamental flaw. It suffers from the very fault it condemns: it’s inauthentic.
By David Adjmi; directed by Rebecca Bayla Taichman; sets by Riccardo Hernandez; costumes by Susan Hilferty; lighting by Stephen Strawbridge; sound by Bray Poor; dramaturgy by Michael Walkup; stage manager, Joanne E. McInerney. Presented by the Yale Repertory Theater, James Bundy, artistic director; Victoria Nolan, managing director. At the Yale Repertory Theater, 1120 Chapel Street, at York Street, New Haven; (203) 432-1234. Through Feb. 9. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.
WITH: Johanna Day (Carol), Matt McGrath (Martin), Samantha Soule (Judy) and Stephen Barker Turner (Jerry).