by Sergei Burbank · February 19, 2014
Revivals of masterworks, even flawed masterworks, are an essential part of theater because it is a key element of maintaining a sense of tradition. Theater is a received art, and therefore theater practitioners must have a clear sense of where the work came from before they can develop any sense of the direction in which they wish to take it. David Rabe’s Hurlyburly is a flawed masterwork, an immersive fever dream of a play that has a similar effect on the brain as the substances the characters take onstage: it is an elusive work that presents a wide target to latch onto, but just as you seem to have a grip, it wriggles away into the distance. The revival, produced by Variations Theatre Group at the Chain Theatre in Long Island City, presents a tantalizing picture of how that relatively new institution will make an increasingly prominent contribution to the examination of works both new and old.
Rabe’s play follows the intersecting lives of multiple low- to mid-level Hollywood executives sometime in the 1980s. Eddie (Kirk Gostkowski) vacillates between spiralling rage fits and an equally furious melancholy, all fueled by the various illicit substances he consumes with barely a pause to speak, sleep, or vomit. Within his orbit revolve other similarly lost souls, including Mickey (Deven Anderson) -- his partner in crime, Phil (Brandon Scott Hughes) -- his seeming protege and an unstable ex-con / wannabe actor, and Artie (Chris Harcum) -- a contemporary and rival, although the rivalry seems to only run in one direction. On the outer reaches of the course charted by these less-than-celestial bodies are the women of this world: Darlene (Christina Elisa Perry) -- Eddie’s on-again, off-again girlfriend; Donna (Rachel Cora) -- a hitchhiker who drifts in and out of their lives, and Bonnie (Jacklyn Collier) -- an exotic dancer / performance artist whose chief value to the boys of the play seems to lie in her accommodating libido.
It is difficult to expand a plot summary of Hurlyburly much beyond a catalog of its characters, because there is not much of a recognizable plot; little actually occurs onstage in the three-hour work, but that has not stood in the way of the play’s widespread mainstream success since its premiere in 1984. This is primarily because it is less a sequence of events as it is a series of spotlights for virtuosic performances. Rabe’s script is an orchestral work: it calls for precision timing on the part of a group of performers working in synchronicity, interspersed with solos that allow individual musicians to display their chops.
The cast lives up to the demands of the script: Kirk Gostkowski’s Eddie lies at the center of this (sometimes self-inflicted) maelstrom, and often holds back with a dead-eyed coolness that erupts into concentric circles of furious self-absorption; his energy does not flag, and he does the heavy lifting of the piece with eager aplomb. Jacklyn Collier’s Bonnie, introduced by the other characters as an increasingly problematic punch line, arrives in the flesh with a high-pitched, vulnerable, and subtle performance. It is of course no accident that the character most brazenly reduced to her reproductive organs would shock and surprise by having a brain and free will as well.
This necessitates a detour into discussing the problematic misogyny of Hurlyburly. The casual bigotry of the men occupying the world they do is unsurprising and fully justified, given their professional responsibilities, which involve casually discarding most any woman over thirty and larger than a size four. However, beyond the cliche of neglected / evil (ex-)wives that remain unseen offstage, the women we do see are only interesting to the male leads (and, therefore, it is assumed, to us) insofar as the male leads have access to the women’s orifices. (As an example, the end of Darlene’s relationship with Eddie is not coincidentally the end of her time in the play; the only reason we meet her before the relationship even began can be chalked up to the fact that she was sleeping with someone else in the main cast, I suppose.) For a script that is at times spectacular in its language and can rise to incredible heights, it is strangely jarring to have female characters treated so shabbily without comment, with moments of insight and awareness (about the men’s thoughts, naturally), that cast them in the light of misfit sex toys. It is very much a period piece, like an Ibsen play (although it must be said that in terms of gender awareness, Ibsen ages much better).
The self-regard and self-centeredness that underpins Eddie’s world -- and his half-hearted attempts to reach beyond his limits -- is an element that feels all-too-familiar in the our world today. One remarkable thought emerges seeing this play revisited now: pathological self-centeredness, thought to be a product of the internet age, in fact has long pre-dated it.