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Ridiculous Fraud

Do you know what you’ve done? Do you have any idea of the trouble you’ve caused? The heartbreak? The worry? The dinner bill; the shame! You’ve destroyed your life! Your last hope of a legitimate life. --- “” –

Ridiculous Fraud
Reg Rogers and Ali Marsh
(Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
It is a stormy summer night in New Orleans, five years before Hurricane Katrina hits. But the socially prominent Clay family’s once opulent home in the Garden District is already going to seed as it is being prepared for evacuation.

No, it’s not a natural disaster that spurs the sale of the family property, home, and all of its possessions, but rather the results of the cumulative actions by family members. Each of them is soon enough identified by their respectively idiotic behavior, and their presumably ill-advised, irresponsible, and illegal missteps. For starters, Papa is in jail for fraud. So he’s out of commission. In playwright Beth Henley’s Ridiculous Fraud, now having its world premiere at the McCarter’s Berlind Theater, we meet more of her growing fictional family of Southern eccentrics.

Outrageous, funny, pathetic, and, as you may suspect from the title, fraudulent, these people are extracted from the fertile mind of the playwright who won the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Drama in 1981 for Crimes of the Heart (subsequently released as a film in 1986). Henley filters her delectably skewed view of Southerners with a unique flair for instigating the improbable but possible. She continues in the poignantly comical vein that made some of her other plays (The Miss Firecracker Contest, The Wake of Jamey Foster, The Debutante Ball, and Impossible Marriage) so irrepressibly endearing.

This free-wheeling borderline farce also leaves the distinct impression that Henley’s gift is one driven more by character than by plot. At the end of Act I, you may scratch your head wondering where these odd and recklessly motivated characters are heading. If the end of the play leaves you with the same question, you'll at least know that it was fun trying to get somewhere.

The play, directed by Lisa Peterson, with a notable affection for the genre and its respect for dramatic anarchy, is divided into four sections, four locations during each of the four seasons of the year. Idiosyncratically poetic Lafcad Clay (Daniel London), the youngest brother has abruptly terminated his nuptials on the eve of the wedding day. He has run off and sought refuge in the overgrown garden of the family home barely escaping the rage (the word "lynching" is used) of his wealthy fiancée’s family. Lafcad's individualistic inclinations and immaturity have long roused his older brothers' suspicions about his having "tendencies." Now, his rash and somehow inevitable act has cut off the family's last hope for salvagng their sagging fortunes.

The flighty Lafcad may be a lost cause, but what about high-strung hyper-tense Andrew (Reg Rogers), the oldest brother, who is busy campaigning for election as State Auditor on a platform of "honesty and trust," but with money being supplied by a conspicuously fraudulent Ed (John Carroll Lynch). We are not surprised that Andrew is clueless regarding the affections that his distracted wife Willow (Ali March) is showing toward Kap (Tim DeKay), the duck-hunting middle brother. Although full of bluster and braggadocio, Ed is also unaware that his restless second wife Maude (Barbara Garrick) has also set about her own romantic design, one that you can be sure will affect Willow, who is Ed’s daughter from his first marriage.

They all certainly deserve the company of likable gullible Baites (Charles Haid), the boys’ uncle and a confirmed bachelor. However, Baites has, in a moment of weakness, lost his heart. The object of his affection is Georgia (Heather Goldenhersh), a pretty but generally pathetic and lost (in every sense of the word) young woman with one wooden leg whom he found at the train station and subsequently invited to the wedding then to his home.

After the sale of the family home, the intrigues continues at the smitten Uncle Baite’s backwoods farmhouse where he is determined to give Georgia a diamond ring. It is here that Georgia’s shocking past is revealed; Willow slips a "dear Andrew" letter in her husband’s notebook; and Maude, who is undergoing treatment for cancer, continues to smoke up a storm, in every sense of that word. It is only a matter time and the changing of the season before we are wondering who Maude is actually having an affair with; what will happen to Lafcad, who "can’t deal with employment;" or just how he was pierced by an arrow during a fist fight between Andrew and Cap.

What about that cannon being shot off in the woods and that silver angel that appears at the family crypt? All this and a cockroach served on a cracker are among the delicacies that await those receptive and willing to make the journey in this fearless ode to Southern perspicacity and penury. Each performer seems to have been enlivened by the abstracted oddities of their character’s nature.

The standout is Rogers, who displays a special gift for maintaining his equilibrium under the most trying circumstances. Garrick is excellent as the ailing but affable Maude. Goldenhersh, who made a terrific impression last season in Doubt and took over this role after the first preview, uses that one wooden leg with hilarious aplomb. Marsh is delightful as the drifting Willow, who is nevertheless steadfast when it comes to the only proper way to drink a Coca Cola. It is also a pleasure to watch DeKay, Haid, London, and Lynch commendably face the vicissitudes of their characters’ messy lives.

Director Peterson controls the havoc but also keeps a firm grasp on the more subtle emotional tremors that propel the characters. The four impressive sets by Michael Yeargan show the Clay’s home to be barely safe from the overgrown foliage that frames it and threatens to swallow it up. Autumn leaves fall almost satirically and certainly on cue from the trees that define the land just outside of Baites’ remote farmhouse. The rustic interior of Cap’s cabin in the woods, and the site of the Clay’s family tomb complete the wittily evocative locales that are enhanced by Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting.

The outré relationships, events and their perpetrators herein dramatized give further proof why it is unlikely that the South will ever rise again, according to Henley, the reigning queen of Southern Gothic.

Playwright: Beth Henley
Director: Lisa Peterson
Daniel London (Lafcad Clay), Reg Rogers (Andrew Clay), Ali Marsh (Willow Clay), Tim DeKay (Kap Clay), Charles Haid (Baites), Heather Goldenhersh (Georgia), Barbara Garrick (Maude Chrystal), John Carroll Lynch (Ed Chrystal) Featuring: Tim DeKay, Barbara Garrick, Charles Haid, Catherine Kellner, Daniel London, John Carroll Lynch, Ali Marsh, and Reg Roger
Sets: Michael Yeargan
Costumes: Jess Goldstein
Lighting: Peter Kaczorowski
Sound: Martin Desjardins
Dramaturg: Janice Paran
Dialect Coach: Gillian Lane-Plescia
Fight Consultant: Rick Sordelet
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes including intermission
The Berlind Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center, Princeton NJ,
From 5/05/06 to 6/11/06; opening 5/12/06
Tues to Thurs at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8 pm , Saturday matinees at 3 PM; Sunday matinees at 2 PM Tickets $40, $35
Reviewed by Simon Saltzman based on May 12th performance
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