“Flays.” Maybe that’s what we should call them. Flays are plays that share a lot of conventions with film, sometimes so many you wonder whether or not they were originally written for the screen. If you suspect you’re watching one, simply wait for the scene that takes place in a car, by a river, with several guns, or involves some other classically cinematic device that gets clunky onstage. Second-guessing authorial intent, the staunch bohemian may think of such adaptable work as insincere suck-ups to Hollywood, though most would fare better as independents. But with suck-downs like Footloose and Trainspotting taking up valuable orchestra seats, upward mobility has never looked better. The best flays match the films they ape—Jez Butterworth’s Mojo, for example—chockablock with snappy dialogue, hairpin plot twists, and comically twisted characters, they bring Mamet and Meisner full circle.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the theater/film cross-pollination occurring in Lee MacDougall’s High Life, a hard-boiled tale of four career criminals who band together to pull off an iffy ATM scam, even if the concept is familiar and doggedly simple. Like that of many pieces of its genre, the cast of High Life is composed of foulmouthed male lowlife archetypes, scraping by, eager to manipulate and betray each other for a leg up—as always, in the form of a quick fix of cash. Cranky, desperate, and selfish, they’re addicted to drugs and prone to violent outbursts. Kind of like, I don’t know… screenwriters?
MacDougall’s quartet are all addicted to morphine, a refreshing change from heroin, even harkening back to O’Neill. But there are four long journeys into this day’s night. The plan: Donnie, a whiny punk with one ailing kidney, steals bankcards. He takes out $600. He hands it off to the fresh-faced, arrogant Billy, who informs the teller that the machines are dispensing too much cash. He gives her the $600. If all goes well, the bank sends out some unarmed ATM repairmen, and Dick and Bug, who have been waiting in the car, begin the heist. Or would, if these neurotic con men didn’t clash tragically while waiting in the getaway vehicle.
Thin on plot and deliberately amoral, the production’s pleasures rest squarely on the ensemble’s rapport, as they trade profane stories and lines like “Just because you hit someone and they die doesn’t mean you killed them.” At opening night, the cast could have used some fine-tuning. As Donnie, David Greenspan stands out a little too much, squealing and fidgeting so much he frequently upstages his mates, who include the capable John Bedford Lloyd as the gruff ringleader; Isiah Whitlock Jr., who comes off more of a teddy bear than a hardened criminal; and Matthew Mabe, convincingly snotty as Billy. They should have it all down by the final edit.
The talking band’s Tilt, which my companion described as “white people acting silly,” seems determined to prove that a piece of theater isn’t necessarily more vital because of its appropriateness to the medium. Whereas High Life‘s clipped dialogue serves its characters, the two put-upon office workers of Tilt, Flo and Ziggy, trade monosyllabic, verbless lines as a theatrical gesture—musical as well, given that playwright Ellen Maddow also wrote the wonderful and playful ditties in between the scenes. A pair of middle-class Everyday Newt Burmans, Flo and Ziggy are trapped in a monotonous work cycle, with all its low-grade animosity, tedium, and ordering of Chinese food. Work, as is its habit, has eaten away their emotional lives: Ziggy’s love life consists of phoning a woman in Baltimore every morning to explain a different law of thermodynamics. Flo feeds her creepy children like pets—affectlessly dumping food onto their dishes. Maddow’s songs communicate more about the strangeness of the familiar than her play; she treats office supplies as percussion instruments, mingles the Far East with East New York, and isn’t afraid to let kids play off-key violins. Director Will Pomerantz keeps the whole thing afloat by sustaining an undercurrent of childlike theater-magic. He pulls so much shtick out of his top hat—pulsating lights, quirky sound cues, an antique phonograph—that you nearly forget the play’s banal thesis: that the tedium is the message.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 2, 1999