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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Of course, this being a play by Beth Henley, this is not your standard issue marital drama but an eerie Southern Gothic tale. It uses the Perch marriage and the equally fraught relationship of the bartender and waitress Eve White (Glenne Headly as the aptly named for her white supremacy mindset) to unspool and symbolize the tensions and crazinees in a town still rife with racism in 1964. Murder and drugs (more unusually imbibed than you're likely to have ever seen) heighten the macabre set-up.
Since the New Group's production features the same dynamite actors and prestigious director as The Jacksonian's premiere at the Geffen Playhouse in California it made me hopeful for a turnaround in Ms. Henley's career — a return to the mode that brought us her Pulitzer Prize winning Crimes of the Heart and The Miss Firecracker Contest. No more duds like The L-Plays, or Family Week , which closed as I was about to post my review, and didn't do any better in a revised second version.
The good news is that The Jacksonian does take us back to the territory Henley so successfully explored in Crimes of the Heart. It's a bizarre tragi-comedy (think William Faulkner at his most unfathomable, or even more current novelist Stephen King) set in the volatile period and locale of her youth and replays a fantastical version of her own parents' divorce.
But plan on abandoning any requirements for seeing reality in The Jacksonian's wildly troubled people. If you can't do that, you're going to lose patience with the increasingly outlandish shenanigans, sketchy back and forth dramatic structure and the political symbolism.
What you won't lose patience with in either case is the cast. The actors portraying these grotesques make this production worth seeing whether Southern gothic genre tilting heavily towards credibility taxing melodrama is your thing or not.
The play's dozen scenes zig-zag between May and December 1964. The action begins at Christmas time on the heels of a murder which seems of special interest to bartender Weber and waitress White, and the arrival of Perch's daughter Rosy. The teenager is the separated Perchs' designated "go between" — and the frequently audience addressing narrator. She's been sent by her mother (who will also appear later) with a sad looking little Christmas tree.
Perch's professional life is as much of a mess as his marriage. To borrow from a dental analogy he uses during a phone call to his mother, the decay in his life is an amalgam of mistakes. Nor are the bartender and the waitress just observers. In dealing with their own dark secrets, they become actively involved in the dentist's unraveling.
Though stuck with the play's problematic and underdeveloped elements, the players make the excesses of their characters fascinating to watch. All are outstanding, but ultimately this is Ed Harris's show. He brings off the duality of the prim and proud professional and his Dr. Strangelove side with awesome texture and believability.
Amy Madigan (Harris's real life wife) is excellent as Perch's maniacally angry wife Susan, and Juliet Brett is quite poignant as their daughter, though her audience addressing monologues tend to make her character at times feel like a device.
Bill Pullman's Fred Weber is marvelously creepy. He's almost unrecognizable with his slick little pompadour hairdo and sounds as if every word he spoke was as hard to squeeze out as toothpaste from an almost empty tube. His role isn't as showy as Harris's but he manages to make it memorable with hidden menace and feeling. Glenne Headly too brings originality to the play's most stereotypical character, the sexy, manipulative Eva White.
Robert Falls, the distinguished director of Chicago's Goodman Theater, sees to it that things move smoothly and inevitably into ever increasing darkness. No problem either with the rest of the crafts team.
The Jacksonian is not a sure-fire crowd pleaser. But, except for the stupendous Brits currently doing in-rep un Shakespeare on Broadway, this is the most interesting and nuanced acting you're likely to see anywhere in Manhattan these days.
Not recommended for dentists.