Harper’s Valley’s Nearly Naked Theatre kicked off its 2013-2014 season last night with David Lindsay-Abaire’s 1997 play; A Devil Inside.
There are a few things to keep in mind when seeing this play. First, it has nothing to do with “The Devil Inside” from the horror genre. If you’re looking for an exorcism you’ll need to keep looking. Secondly, if you’re only familiar with David Lindsay-Abaire from his Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play; Rabbit Hole, you are in for a surprise. This play is a comedy; a dark one, to be sure, (oh my yes, “dark” doesn’t begin to cover it.) but very definitely a comedy.
The plot is almost impossible to summarize. Gene’s mother celebrates her son’s 21st birthday by revealing that his father, dead for 14 years, did not die of heart failure as Gene had been told all his life. The truth is more interesting if harder to believe. Gene’s 420-pound father had set out from New York City walking to lose weight. When he reached the Poconos he was stabbed in the back and his feet were cut off. Now that Gene is an adult, his mother wants him to leave the family’s Lower East Side laundromat and avenge his father’s death.
Gene is smitten with Caitlin, a fellow student in his Russian Literature class. Caitlin is in love with, and stalking, their professor; Carl, with dreams of becoming the post-modern Anna Karenina. Carl is plotting to murder an appliance repairman; Brad, in part because Brad is boring and in part because Carl is obsessed with Dostoyevsky. Brad is mourning an unrequited love of his youth but also quite taken with the enigmatic Lily; an artist with lots of secrets and a fascination with feet. All their stories are bizarrely interwoven. Hijinks, hilarity and tragedy ensue; often simultaneously.
The acting in this production abandons realism in favor of a style might be described as melodrama; way, WAY over-the-top, melodrama. It is an interesting choice and one that is well suited to the material. I found reviews of other productions of the play that followed the same course. It is a risk but one that mostly paid off last night.
The risk lies in the fact that the performers need to walk a razor-thin line, staying true to the style while not falling over the cliff into what could only be described as ‘bad acting’. It is the difference between an actor honestly playing a character who lives in a hyper-dramatic reality and an actor who plants his/her tongue firmly in their cheek, winks at the audience, and proceeds to mock the character they are playing. One can create an alternative reality and play the role with verisimilitude or one can ‘mug’ for the audience. There was a little of both last night but, happily, more of the former than the latter.
Oddly, the audience were not good partners to the actors in this regard. We attended the opening night performance and the majority of the audience were supporters of the company, as we are, or friends of the cast. In Act I there was a lot of laughter based on audience members’ knowledge of what the actor was doing rather than what was happening in the play. For the rest of us, it was a little like watching the ‘out-takes’ at the end of a movie. There is a point where watching other people laugh at ‘inside’ jokes stops being funny and starts being annoying. When the actor onstage begins to play to that laughter, it is the kiss of death for a performance. There was some/too much of that at the beginning of the play last night but the cast recaptured their focus quickly and, soon, the laughter was lining up pretty well with the language and action on stage.
Full disclosure: this was the 12th play I had seen in the past 14 days. I am an unabashed theater junkie but I think I might have enjoyed this performance more next week, or the week after, than I did last night. I think it is a good start to the new season, exactly the kind of production I hope for from this group, and I look forward to the productions to come.