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Jerry Patch, the longtime dramaturge at South Coast Repertory (he split SCR about seven years ago), once remarked that every great play, along with lots of shitty ones, is about home. Whether it's about finding it, losing it, missing it, living in a fucked-up one, or simply remembering it, home is the heart that regulates the pulse of most plays. That's absolutely the case with Noah Haidle's Rag and Bone. Its six primary characters are all desperately searching for a home, from a poet trying to carve one out from the terrible beauty he senses around him to a pimp whose mother died while birthing him.
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But while the essence of Haidle's play may embody a universal quest for home, the journey in Rag and Bone is unlike any other. The world his characters inhabit is one in which whores spout Faulkner, ladders climb toward heaven and heart transplants are as easy to pull off as making an omelet. It's a bizarre world cooked up in the frenetic imagination of a playwright who is no stranger to OC stages. (In March, SCR will mount its fourth Haidle play in the past seven years.) But while it was first produced in 2005, around the same as two of those plays, Princess Marjorie and Mr. Marmalade, this feels like a much earlier work from a playwright whose execution hadn't quite caught up to his ambition.
It's an ungainly sprawl, its lack of focus reminiscent of the old "Andy Capp" comic strips in which Andy and his wife brawl in a furious cloud with fists and feet and rolling pins sticking out. There's a lot going on, but we're never quite sure who's doing what to whom. What we do know is that two brothers own a ladder shop, and one of them, George (a strong Steven Sullivan), sells human hearts on the black market. How he gets those hearts is never clearly established, but the people whose hearts are ripped from them don't die; they just drift along in a state of ennui.
One of those is the Poet (a fragile and funny Adam Poynter), who begins the play with a gaping hole in his chest. A sassy hooker (Angélique Pivoine, who turns a stereotype into a flesh-and-blood character) takes pity on him and gives him a blowjob on the house. In a chance conversation with the other brother from the ladder shop, Jeff (a simple yet deceptively deep Lee Samuel Tangg), the unnamed hooker realizes where the poet's heart is. She and her pimp, T-Bone (Chrisgen Whitfield, who also elevates his character above stereotype), decide to retrieve it. Unfortunately, the poet's heart has been transplanted into the body of an arrogant millionaire (a deliciously corrupt Larry Purtell), complicating an already-dicey affair.
There is a large streak of dark humor in the play, but director Jenni Dillon rarely manages to strike the appropriate tone to mine all that humor. Her use of acoustic music from the Black Keys and early Kings of Leon during scene transitions lends a somber, foreboding atmosphere to the proceedings, and the pace is more of a trot than the sprint this bizarre comedy seems to require. When so many ideas and eccentricities are whirling about, it's best to just let them fly. Lingering too long on them forces the audience to engage with everything that's happening. And in an undercooked play such as this one, in which the whole never quite equals the sum of its parts, giving too much time to trying to figure out what is really going on works against its freewheeling nature.
But while Dillon doesn't smooth over the script's deficiencies, primarily the rocky relationship between its gallows humor and its heartfelt empathy, she absolutely succeeds in making us care deeply for the characters. With the exception of a subservient waiter in Bermuda who transforms into a bitch-slapping pimp (Mark Rosier in a wonderfully effective turn), the play's seven other characters somehow seem achingly real in such an abnormal universe. That's a credit to the performers, obviously, but marshaling her troops onto the same page is a major accomplishment for Dillon. This is the type of helter-skelter play that could easily go awry, with actors spinning off into their own orbits. But the focus on their relationships with one another keeps things grounded, even if the terrain is a bit rocky.
Now, if this seems a bit contradictory—the pace is too slow to capture all the funny but just right to make us care about the characters—you're right. In a play such as Rag and Bone, in which the script careens from moments of lunacy to deep introspection, a director must decide whether to push the accelerator or slam on the brakes. The choice here is to slow it down and focus on the play's humanity rather than its hilarity. That makes for an empathetic journey, but not the most entertaining one.
Still, bravo to Hunger Artists for taking a stab at Haidle. He's one of the more imaginative playwrights working in American theater, and unfortunately, theater will probably lose him soon (his first feature film, Stand Up Guys, starring Al Pacino and Christopher Walken, comes out early next year). Rag and Bone may be underdeveloped and far from his best, but it's still a testament to his startling creativity.
This review appeared in print as "The Heart of the Matter: Hunger Artists plays Rag and Bone for the humanity instead of hilarity, to uneven results."
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