Mania with Meaning

David Rabe set Hurlyburly, a three-hour emotional maelstrom, in the Hollywood Hills, early ’80s. As I watched Ion Theatre’s snappy, polished, visceral production, I had a nagging sense of déjà vu. Then it dawned: I went to a party just down from Mulholland Drive in ’82. The prevailing attitude at the time: life had sped up; it moved so fast that nothing made sense. Perplexity was de rigueur. A woman summed it up: “Whenever someone says, ‘Have a nice day,’ I reply, ‘Thanks, but I’ve made other plans.’”

Rabe’s people rarely complete a thought, often finishing sentences with “blah blah blah.” If they can’t find “clarity,” they’ll take “oblivion,” spurred by lines of coke, weed, and Jim Beam. Sons and daughters of the Me Decade, they’ve become chronic self-scrutinizers. They’d rather “discuss the experience,” as the saying went, than act, and they inspect every situation, even the most trivial, for ultimate meaning. The more they probe, however, the more the truth recedes.

Somehow they function. The four males have mediocre jobs in the film industry (Claudio Raygoza’s costumes include just enough chic outfits to suggest competence outside their apartment). But Eddie and Mickey, casting agents; Phil, an out-of-work actor; and Artie, a sort-of producer, engage in frenzies of dysfunction.

“It’s a rough century all the way around,” says Bonnie, who stripteases with a balloon. “Who does anybody know who is doing okay?” Even so, she adds, people shouldn’t “start pushing each other out of cars.”

Actors love Hurlyburly for its juicy roles, but few producers dare to stage its unrelenting mania. Ion’s full-bore, let-God-sort-it-out production ranks among its finest.

Fran Gercke’s Eddie is the consummate narcissist: no matter what anyone says, about anything, it’s about him. A nexus of conflicting impulses, Eddie’s the Omega Male, almost paralyzed by self-analysis yet always on the verge of grasping something. Gercke’s sustained intensity keeps Eddie just about to snap — or, more likely, to implode — throughout. An outstanding performance.

The playwright had second thoughts about linking his characters to Hollywood: audiences would assume that’s why they’re such hyper-spaced neurotics and wouldn’t see wider possibilities. Ion and director Glenn Paris emphasize who the people are, not what they do (they’re only sane, it turns out, when on the job). Phil’s a temperamental actor. In Tom Hall’s hair-trigger performance, what works onstage wreaks havoc off. Matt Scott’s Mickey and Walter Ritter’s Artie put passive enabling on assault mode. They also curry Eddie’s favor in a twisted game of musical chairs.

In the ’70s and ’80s, the Women’s Movement spread through consciousness-raising support and encounter groups. In many ways, Hurlyburly feels like a twisted male parody of those gatherings. Along with bemoaning their lost moorings, when the guys get together they trash women unmercifully. Theatened by feminism — men used to be in charge, now are becoming “just background” — Eddie and his misogynist buddies are one reason support groups became necessary.

When Rabe assembled notes for Hurlyburly, his working title was Guy’s Play. His women face the consequences. Every time upscale Darlene (Sara Beth Morgan), homeless Donna (Morgan Trant), or stripper Bonnie (terrific Karson St. John) make an assertion, a male shoots her down. As a period piece, few plays reflect their era better than this one (it’s often so mean-spirited, you want to shout, “Enough already!”). But as Rabe suggested, Hurlyburly may have wider applications.

The fish suspect trouble in Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s boom. So does Jules. The gay marine biologist lives in an erstwhile bomb shelter and expects a “globally catastrophic event” — most likely a planet-bashing comet — sometime soon. Thinking he might become the next Adam, Jules places an ad on craigslist for meaningful sex. His one respondent, 22-year-old Jo, wants “no strings” but becomes a “postapocalyptic cohabitant.”

It’s easy to see why boom’s one of the most produced plays of our time. It’s a 90-minute, doom-drenched comedy about a date, and a comet, from hell. We watch genesis in a museum exhibit, overseen by tympani-pounding Barbara. But are the actors playing Jules and Jo accurate, or are they improvising? The play raises questions about where — and who, and even if — we are with farcical underpinnings.

Except for blaring almost every sentence as a HEADLINE, which saps energy from the final scenes, the San Diego Rep staging’s a good one. Rachael VanWormer and Steven Lone make a deft mismatch. Sprightly Jo and nerdy Jules flit around David Lee Cuthbert’s cinderblock set like gymnasts.

Barbara, the narrator, pulls levers and cues effects (including Tom Jones’s house-rocking galactic intrusion) like a corporate Wizard of Oz. San Diego favorite Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson makes her both regal and insecure (and funny) and suggests throughout that there’s something fishy going on.

Hurlyburly by David Rabe
Ion Theatre, Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard, University Heights
Directed by Glenn Paris; cast: Fran Gercke, Tom Hall, Sara Beth Morgan, Walter Ritter, Karson St. John, Matt Scott, Morgan Trant; scenic design, Claudio Raygoza and Matt Scott; costumes and sound, Raygoza; lighting, Chris Renda
Playing through January 30; Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-220-0097.

boom by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb
San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown
Directed by Sam Woodhouse; cast: Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson, Rachael VanWormer, Steven Lone; scenic, lighting, and projection design, David Lee Cuthbert; costumes, Jennifer Brawn Gittings; sound, Tom Jones
Playing through January 31; Wednesday and Sunday at 7:00 pm. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-544-1000.

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