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American Sligo

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

(Left to right) Paul Sparks, Michael Chernus, Guy Boyd, Matthew Stadelmann, and Marylouise Burke.
Photo by Sandra Coudert.

With each successive year - and sometimes with each successive month within a year - Adam Rapp's plays become more and more like the characters they contain: disaffected, unknowledgeable of (and uninterested in) the outside world, and stumbling about in a hallucinatory existence created and maintained strictly for the purposes of insulation from a darker, terrifying pain. Increasingly often, they also meet similarly bloody, ignominious ends that could be avoided with a careful regimen of common sense.

American Sligo, Rapp's latest play and appearing now under his own direction at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, continues this trend. This is not, for the record, surprising, though it is saddening: Those who have followed this playwright's burgeoning career in recent years are aware that when Rapp turns his critical faculties away from a broader pop-culture society and toward the struggling individual, he's capable of producing compelling, emotionally relevant works. His Blackbird (not to be confused with David Harrower's play of the same name that played at Manhattan Theatre Club last season) is a haunting and beautiful expression of love between disintegrating souls, and his Red Light Winter was solely about the alienation people can experience when they get too close.

But in the wake of Essential Self-Defense at Playwrights Horizons earlier this year and now American Sligo, Rapp seems to be declaring in full voice that his plays written about and for human beings are the exception rather than the rule. Though this one is ostensibly about the fractured family Sligo, with even a bedraggled portrait gracing the cover of the program, its real concern is the role of illusion in our lives and the deadly turns acceptance of it can take when belief in self is sacrificed for belief in a greater dream.

Here, the fantasy of choice is professional wrestling, which patriarch Art (Guy Boyd) has made his career and is just about to retire from. In honor of his many years of achievement, his organization has bussed out from Idaho a dedicated fan named Bobby (Matthew Stadelmann) to join Art and his clan for dinner and the going-away match. The real fighting goes on inside the house, where the members of the clan Sligo are generally unwilling, or unable, to accept any view other than their own.

Art wears his Spandex costume to the dinner table and applies his eye makeup and greasy mullet wig while chowing down on lamb. Son Kyle (Michael Chernus) bickers constantly with Aunt Bobbie (Marylouise Burke) about her short-circuiting memory, prescription drug fetishes, and tendency to refer to herself as a member of the family, as well as with his brother Victor (Paul Sparks) about his cocaine addiction and theft habits. (Kyle also harbors an underage girlfriend of his own.) A place for the table is perennially reserved for Art's wife and Bobbie's sister, who died several years earlier.

The point that no one is capable of communicating with anyone else is made within the first five minutes, and is repeated ad infinitum until roughly a minute before the final blackout, some two intermissionless hours later. This being a Rapp play, the message is not delivered without comedic flair, much of which is provided by Bobby's innate cluelessness about life's artificiality and Bobbie's ever-broadening dementia. Both Stadelmann and Burke bring hilarious, blubbering bluster to their portrayals that guarantee laughs during various diatribes on disenchantment with the falsity of, well, everything.

Of course, this being a Rapp play, people have a tendency to assault social tropes of the day with a laissez-faire abandon that hurts far more than it helps. Name-checking Prell (which, Victor insists, is responsible for his hair's soft sheen) or pharmaceuticals advertised on television is one thing; referring to diabetes (which Victor suffers from) as a "designer" ailment, then treating it as one by using it as a convenient excuse to push characters around his wrong-side-of-the-tracks chessboard, borders on the insulting. (Rapp treats cancer, which claimed the life of the Sligo matriarch, with considerably more reverence.)

Dialogue along these lines does not propel character in and of itself, and except when Chernus breaks his glazed-eyed stare to acknowledge an injustice perpetrated by Victor or Bobby and address them with a wallpaper-ripping roar that truly seems linked to an inner rage, the actors do little to assist. You learn far more about the Sligos from looking at John McDermott's cramped, exploded-mobile-home set, which blends Middle-America values with highbrow chintz and low-class taste. The people occupying the house, though, might as well be zombies.

That, by the way, is another trick Rapp frequently employs, as if vocal and physical depression are alone sufficient for depicting men and women who check their reason for being at their own front door. Certain dramatists, many of whom with names at least as famous as their plays (Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams come to mind), dealt with many of Rapp's common themes by sprinkling characters in reality and deriving drama from their resulting discomfort or disconnect. Rapp's insistence on placing most of his plays, like American Sligo, at variance with reality forces them to become just as robotic as the people he sees being programmed by forces far more sinister than those they dine with every night.

American Sligo
Through October 14
Rattlestick Theatre, 224 Waverly Place
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Theatermania

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