The deliriously importunate patter of a QVC jock kicks off Adam Rapp’s sharp and disquieting Stone Cold Dead Serious, the unseen pitchman hard-selling a mint sheet of baseball cards: “They never got cut!” But hold the phone: The same can’t be said for almost everyone who appears in this dysfunctional diptych, a raw-nerved trawl through a territory part curdled heartland, part lethal videodrome. The Cutco knives perched atop the Ledbetters’ television aren’t there by accident, and in the course of the evening Rapp unleashes a veritable orgy of impending and actual harm: cutlery salesmen, reality-TV broadswordsmen, and plain old suicidal tendencies. (On a lighter note, the stagehands shift the scenery in ninja garb.)

Unhappy in its own way, the Ledbetter family is on the skids: Father Cliff (Guy Boyd) is a herniated, incontinent wreck, and daughter Shaylee (Gretchen Cleevely) is a teenage runaway prostitute junkie. Mother Linda (Betsy Aidem), an overworked waitress who thinks they should start going to church, tries to keep the family afloat. The clan’s only hopeful member is 16-year-old Wynne (Matthew Stadelmann), a blue-haired nerd and “samurai virgin” who’s as skittish as he is big-hearted. He’s one of three kids in the country to have solved the “Tang Dynasty” video game, and has received an invitation to participate in the alarmingly live-action finals competition, to be held in the East Village and televised on cable. At the outset of his vision quest, Wynne assures Mom he’ll be fine: “I signed a waiver that I’m responsible for my own life and everything.”

He meets up with teammate Sharice, heretofore his online “girlfriend” (“We instant-message each other all the time”). She’s not only mute but played by Cleevely, and the incest-sacrifice-salvation arc is all part of Rapp’s more serious—dead serious, as it were—master plan. Beneath the scurrilous comic banter and absurd surfaces is a mysterious recurrence of objects, actions, personae and language, in an oblique and haunting style reminiscent of Haruki Murakami’s best fiction; the symbolic freight of these displacements becomes apparent in the play’s final sequence, set in David Korins’s harshly elegant hospital room. In director Carolyn Cantor’s agile Edge Theater Company production, all the actors save Stadelmann swing dual roles; as Wynne, Stadelmann knows how to get the most out of Rapp’s ornate vernacular, at times channeling some of the deadpan affect he displayed as the second titular incarnation in Richard Maxwell’s Joe. “When a cow drinks water, it becomes milk,” he informs his folks, all gawky Bushido conviction. “When a snake drinks water, it becomes poison.” Stone Cold Dead Serious works as a kind of venomous sustenance, dangerous but invigorating. —Ed Park

Jerome Saibil and Eli Batalion, the Canadian creators of Job: The Hip-Hop Musical, do not include their verbal SAT results in their program bios. (Do Canadians take the SATs?) But it’s safe to assume their scores were stratospheric. The track-suit clad duo rhyme dialysis with psychoanalysis, prophylactics with praxis, Draconian with Smithsonian, and obsequious with something illegible in my notes but doubtlessly clever and multisyllabic.

On a set empty save for two towels and a fortress of water bottles, MC Cain (Saibil) and MC Abel (Batalion) put a sacrilegious spin on the Book of Job, transforming chapters and verses into samples and rap couplets. At the immoderately successful Hoover record company, music exec Job Lowe works under CEO J. Hoover and CFO Lou Saphire. Saphire insists that Job’s loyalty stems not from any love for Hoover, but from generous stock options and a fleet of company cars, so he and Hoover make a bet. The men rob Job of his options, cars, even his dental plan, to see if his fidelity remains. Happily, ditzy intern Eleanor helps Job to righteousness—and makes excellent coffee. Generally this update works well, though losing a dental plan is perhaps not precisely correspondent to the violent slaughter of all your offspring and the besetting of your own flesh with loathsome sores. Maybe Job needed bridgework.

Both actors perform with profligate energy—Saibil screwing up his eyes into slits, Batalion bulging out his into perfect orbs. They may be the hardest working men in hip-hop musical theater, which is something of a pity as the show lacks the insouciance and airiness of 2000’s The Bomb-itty of Errors. The writing’s clever and the performances perspiring, but the comedy feels forced and the translation from Aramaic to American hardly necessary. Nevertheless, they do offer at least one provocative insight, suggesting that the equivalent of the ruthless and arbitrary nature of the Old Testament can be found in the contemporary record industry. —Alexis Soloski

More plays may be set in gin mills than any other surrounding. Perhaps it’s because drink loosens inhibitions and loose lips mean lucid quips. It could also be that, when disillusionment is the theme, dramatists find no more fertile venue for illusion-drowning than an environ where liquor flows. Given the abundance of these plays, however, it’s possible that theater-goers facing a dimly lit room outfitted with whiskey bottles, neon signs, and a chiming ATM think, “Oh, no, not another bar play!”

The playwright who mixes his saloon saga with a twist, so to speak, is the one likely to keep audience interest. Writer-director Bryan Wizemann meets the demand neatly with Losing Ground, set in what’s known as a player’s bar on Las Vegas’s shabbier outskirts. The regulars and occasional stray wander in to down free booze while pushing buttons on poker machines built into the counter. The patrons watch their lives ebb, along with their diminishing stacks of quarters and dollars.

During the 90 minutes it takes for Wizemann’s in-real-time drama to unfold, he sends five ground-losers to occupy a stool or slip into the grimy toilet. Diz-ball blonde Michelle (Eileen O’Connell), not above teasing a fellow player out of cash, is convinced she’ll hit four aces any minute and eventually does, to her chagrin. Marty (Monique Vukovic) hopes dimly to match Jacks for cash she’ll send to the son who’s been taken from her. James (Mark Meyer) is determined to get back the $3000 he pissed away the previous night, and his girlfriend Reagan (Rhonda Keyser) wants to haul him out the door before either he or she drops all of their meager holdings. Turner (John Good) is the rare guy who knows to quit when he’s ahead; Paul (Matthieu Cornillon) is rarer still—he doesn’t gamble, only hoists the odd glass. The other nonplayer is bartender Kieran (Kendall Pigg), who manages the low-key operation with a muted voice and an iron fist.

As playwright, Wizemann crisply shorthands a bunch of woebegones whose bent poses are a visual pun, i.e., they look down. He also makes a mistake that’s become common these days. Thinking to get away with a fast-in-fast-out piece, he presents a situation bursting with possibilities and then only begins to probe them. As director, he makes a different kind of mistake. A member of Tom Noonan’s Paradise Theater Company, where a particular brand of naturalism is promulgated, he’s told his actors—all of them accomplished—to behave as if they’re in an actual bar, relating to one another with little regard for whether the audience can hear them. In theory it’s a sensible idea, but in practice it leaves something to be desired. How do ticket buyers realize these dispirited folks have nothing to say to one another if they can’t be heard saying it? —David Finkle

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 8, 2003

Archive Highlights