Art of Darkness


A cornered man plots his own demise. Lowlifes circle with sharpened knives. Pasts are murky, names false. Murderers, thieves, and seducers trade lies. And all slink about in a postcivilization darkness. These are the elements of Shem Bitterman’s The Job. Ditto Bernard-Marie Koltès’s West Pier.

In the not-quite-this-world of The Job, however, there are still rules, though twisted, and a veneer of manners and language. When lumbering redneck Frank begs for a job, any job, at an “agency,” his neatly suited interviewer offers the down-on-his-luck former boxer a “job” in exchange for absolute loyalty. Frank, off the booze and on the run from his past, is trying to go straight and marry his slutty sweetie, Mags. Then he discovers he’s signed on to murder a jobless engineer, Martin, who wants his wife and kids to collect the insurance. Panicked, Frank subcontracts the work to his slick old crony, Jim, who’s currently in the revivalist racket. There are deals, subdeals, and counterdeals, changes of mind and heart. Was Martin
really knocked off? Where’s the body? Will the Agency take revenge on Frank for a double cross? What really happened in Kansas City? Did Frank kill a man? Some of these are mysteries, others just confusion.

Bitterman, who also directs, creates a compelling mix of characters while weaving a richly textured moral tapestry. Preacher Jim’s cynically delivered sermons about man “lost in unending darkness” are an ironic counterpoint to Frank’s genuine attempt to find salvation and Martin’s davening and philosophizing while awaiting death. Though the writing is occasionally obvious, it is more often gripping, provocative, or bleakly funny, deftly opposing language and meaning, act and motive. “That’s God’s money,” Jim chides, grabbing Frank’s hand. Then he hurls the suckers’ bucks into the air, with a dry chuckle. “Anything that stays up is God’s, the rest is mine.”

As Frank, the dim hulk in a heroic struggle for redemption, Barry Cullison impressively synthesizes brute physicality, limited intelligence, and moral courage. He stares at his hands—lethal weapons—as if they are dirty, then raises them as if to break into heaven. Jack Stehlin is his serpentine foil Jim, slickly verbal and matter-of-factly amoral. And Ron Orbach, Robert Cicchini, and Deborah Offner are solid as the punctilious mobster, the desperate but wavering Martin, and the lazy but loving Mags.

Bitterman shows a sure grasp of the rhythms of language and movement. He gives powerful expression to his drama on a mostly bare, deeply raked stage overlooked by high windows, and he artfully employs S. Ryan Schmidt’s sharply etched lighting to define a world of darkness, struggling toward light.

The blackness of West Pier gives no hope of light or redemption. Bernard-Marie Koltès, the French playwright who died of AIDS in 1989, has roots in Beckett, Genet, and Cocteau. Though his action ostensibly occurs on a rotting pier on the West Side of New York, his true locale is a joyless future where the disenfranchised are ravening savages holding on to the tatters of their civilized ways.

Maurice, an affluent businessman, persuades his elegant associate Monique to drive him to the pier in his Jaguar. Whiny Maurice has stolen funds entrusted to him and wants to drown himself. In the impenetrable gloom of a warehouse, he meets the denizens who live nearby: Charles, a young hustler who wants to escape his defeated immigrant mother and father; Fak, a slimy young crony who buys the virginity of Charles’s young sister; and Abad, a mute, black muscle man hiding from the law.

As Monique, in her designer clothes, spits contempt at these circling vultures, they turn on each other, bandying outmoded terms like “friend” and “brother” while each tries to plunder Maurice’s loot. It is a purely economic world. One character gibes that to get into heaven, you have to show your pay stubs and tax returns. Those without go to hell.

Koltès’s script is not without humor. The little sister is high on coffee and flirts with her seducer. Charles’s father, who has bailed out of life and responsibility, hands someone a gun, explaining with a logic utterly right in this world: “If you only kill one man, you will only have evened your own death. Kill two men, you’re something more—no one can kill you twice.”

Directed by Marion Schoevaert, one of the translators, this production of West Pier suffers from pallid staging. Constructed inside a vast, windowless room, the set is promisingly authentic, with car carcass, cinder blocks, and sawdust—but the lighting is either too bright or too dark. Some actors occasionally flicker to life, but there is an amateurish feel to the whole enterprise, which creates no credible illusion. Still, this is the first time West Pier has been performed in America, and, if you listen attentively, Koltès’s fierce poetry burns through.

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