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A CurtainUp Review
High Life

The advance publicity on High Life, now having its American premiere at Primary Stages link its content and style to Quentin Tarantino. Comparisons could indeed be made to Reservoir Dogs in that this dark comedy centers on a bank heist. The four erratic and inept morphine addicts of High Life also have much in common with the underworld dreamers and schemers of last year's English import, Mojo, and the low lifes in one of this season's downtown hits, Killer Joe (see links at end). There's also a distant kinship to the pipe dreamers of O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh,

These and other possible comparisons notwithstanding, Lee MacDougall's premiere playwriting effort needs none of these theatrical apron strings to validate itself. It stands firmly on its own merits and brings us a voice to which attention should be paid. High Life is gripping and, yes, funny even though the lives it lays bare are pretty awful. The playwright, himself an actor, has created roles that are gifts to the actors interpreting them and the Primary Stages team has made the most of this gift, creating a quartet of losers who are as hard to forget as they are to like.

Dick (John Bedford Lloyd), the leader of the group and Bug (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), the most volatile and deadly, enter the stage first -- or to be more exact, they explode into Dick's drab apartment. (The colorless, serviceable thrift shop decor, with a car rolled out for the heist,, is the work of Walt Spangler who also designed the set of the above-mentioned Mojo). As we watch and listen to Dick and Bug we learn that both have spent much of their lives "inside" (in jail). We get an immediate sense of Dick's take charge personality and Bug's easily triggered killer instinct. (Bedford distinguished himself in very different takes on the need to be in control in another Off-Broadway production, Good Will, and last summer's Williamstown revival of The Rainmaker). We also begin to see these men's particular code of loyalty and skewered view of criminal acts at work, notably in Bug's calm and, to him perfectly reasonable declaration that "just because you hit someone and he dies doesn't mean you killed him." Equally clear is the fact that these men's lives are linked to an addiction to morphine and their chief dream is a steady supply of the stuff as per the play's title.

The third character we meet, Donny (David Greenspan), provides the play with its most outrageous comic moments. No doubt Brent Carver, currently Leo Frank in the musical Parade see (link) was wonderful in this role since it won him Canada's prestigious Dora award (MacDougall won the award for best play). However, David Greenspan makes it clear that this is not a one-actor part. He is amazing as the jack-in-the-box, hyper jittery, high voiced virtuoso of ATM machine theft who, like Bug, has his own code of honor (he makes sure the people he robs get their bags and wallets back so they don't have to go through the bother of replacing everything). The fact that Donny is a walking repository of every serious disease in the Merk manual not only doesn't detract from his absurdly humorous persona but adds to it. To give just two examples: At one point he doubles over wheezing a if he's going to succumb before our eyes. Then he straightens out with a lit cigarette in hand. In one of several getting high scenes Donny is the last to be handed the needle since the others are scared to catch one of his many ailments. Ever the hypochondriac, he sterlizes the needle with his cigarette lighter.

The fourth and seemingly most normal member of the ensemble is Billy (Matthew Mabe). He's got the group's morphine habit but has never been in jail -- a gap in his resume that offends Bug and Donny. Dick, who picked him up at his favorite networking group, Narcotics Anonymous, persuades them that his good looks and ability to sweet talk young women is perfect for his plan to turn Donny's petty ATM robberies into a really big heist. (The idea is that Billy turns over $600 stolen by Donny to a bank teller as proof that one of the machines is broken and requires the attention of the repair men whom as Dick has observed, work on machines without any security guards). Mr. Mabe who gave a memorable performance as Joe Orton in Nasty Little Secrets (same theater and director -- see link) is equally fine here as the outsider who turns into the playwright's darkest creation. (I should say, adaptation, since McDougall, based his characters on a group of addicts with whom he roomed during an acting stint in an unnamed Canadian city).

The differentiation and basic similarities of these characters are at the core of High Life's success. Mr. MacDougall has also deftly handled the story's structure. Happily he's not fixated on the currently popular cinematic technique of advancing the plot with lots of short scenes that seem to have a timer set to jump forward at evenly timed, reel-to-reel intervals. Instead each scene lasts for as long as it takes to delineate a particular aspect of the players' interaction and its effect on the plot. Thus the scenes in which we get our first glimpse of each player are quite short. When the heist finally gets under way, we have an almost unendurably long scene. This puts you smack into the waiting game, fully aware that each minute outside the bank targeted for the heist escalates the likelihood that one of these guys will become the stick of dynamite to detonate the whole "sure fire" scheme.

Director Casey Childs' orchestrates things so that the little quirks that distinguish each character are subtly played to the hilt. To get the full flavor of Dick's manipulative personality just watch him remove a pair of feet placed on his formica coffee table or slip a coaster underneath a drink. Under Childs' tight, tension filled direction this string quartet's amoral high jinx provide an entertaining and well paced hour and forty minutes without intermission.

Killer Joe
The Iceman Cometh
The Rainmaker
Good Will
Nasty Little Secrets

By Lee MacDougall
Directed by Casey Childs
With: David Greenspan, John Bedford Lloyd, Matthew Mabe, Isiah Whitlock, Jr.
Sets: Walt Spangler
Costumes:Debra Stein
Lighting: Deborah Constantine
Original music and sound design: Fabian Obispo
Primary Stages Theatre, 354 W. 45th St.-- betw. 8th and 9th Aves.(212/ 333-4052)
1/27/99-2/14/99; opening 1/27/99
Seen 1/23/99 and reviewed 1/28/99 by Elyse Sommer

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