A nine-year-old girl’s voice, clear and fragile as cut glass and accompanied by a lonely piano, intones a prologue of sorts to Denis Johnson’s new tragicomedy. When this rendition of “Desperado,” by the Langley Schools Music Project, begins to play, though the lights haven’t yet dimmed, most of the audience looks up—puzzled or faintly stricken by the old sound of the young voice, the muffled chords lifting away that seem less heard than remembered.
“Desperado” comes from the Langley collection Innocence and Despair, which could be an alternate title for Shoppers Carried by Escalators Into the Flames, circling as the play does around the horrific, decades-past death of a baby girl named Amy. Twentysomething ne’er-do-well Cass (Michael Shannon), four years old at the time of his infant sister’s death, returns to his father’s home in Ukiah, California, to sober up and, perhaps, facilitate the family’s long-overdue reckoning with their defining, deforming trauma. Congenitally pensive Dad (Will Patton) spends most of his hours staring at a television set that, in an offhand magic-realist touch, talks back; in between stations, he reminisces and cogitates in a weak, bewildered drone, his worldview summed up by a pet declaration (usually apropos of little): “Sad . . . beautiful . . . bee-yoo-ti-ful!! . . . sad.” Cass’s older brother, aptly called Bro (Adam Trese), is a drifter seemingly sprung from entirely different genetic stock: Cruel, aggressive, and terrifyingly articulate, he’s crashing with a “retarded woman” (so he says) whom he steals from and sexually utilizes. He prefers stating the obvious to the talking cure Cass proposes. “We are fucked up!” Bro brays. “And I don’t mind it! I enjoy it!”
This brood takes a grim pleasure in martyring themselves under their hair-shirt past—Bro brandishes his eidetic memory of Amy’s death like a weapon at younger sister Marigold (Gretchen Cleevely), who’s too young to remember it; he seems at once to resent her relative innocence and bitterly proud that his pain is bigger than hers. The playwright himself wrings dark humor from bloodstained back pages. While Johnson’s 1997 “California Gothic” novel Already Dead mined a DeLillo-manqué quarry of cosmically doomed human relations, much of Shoppers hovers tentatively in a key just higher than black comedy—starting with Marsha Ginsberg’s splendid set, littered with ghastly needlepoint throw pillows and a coffee table fashioned out of what looks like driftwood. The telepathic boob tube—tuned in to the family’s biography—mocks, cajoles, and screams for attention; that it shares a sarcastic voice with the local pastor-for-hire (James Urbaniak) is a sly grace note on opiates of the masses. Lent a strong physical presence by the rangy (in all senses) Shannon, Cass is strongly reminiscent of Fuckhead, the sweet-souled druggie in the story cycle Jesus’ Son, and Shoppers strives for a similar defiant lightheartedness, especially when the pointless sideshow of premarital shenanigans enacted by supporting players Kevin Corrigan and Kaili Vernoff starts kicking up a racket.
Explicitly about the interface of what has been and what is now, Shoppers also takes as a given the collision of everyday bullshit with flashpoints of cruelty and catastrophe. The awkward lulls and sudden lurching between distant tones may not always be intentional, but always produce a queasy verisimilitude. Largely a revisitation of ground tread in Johnson’s novels, Shoppers offers as its final scene perhaps the bleakest moment in his oeuvre—one that’s all the more ruthless for having begun with the loopy appearance of a blue-painted sprite (Emily McDonnell) in hippie-Hindu raiment. The indelible last image crystallizes innocence and despair in the form of a sobbing, bleeding child-woman—an outburst of present-tense violence that immediately takes its place as another chapter of the imperious, insurmountable past.