Set in a Hollywood Hills bachelor pad in the coked-out ’80s, David Rabe’s Hurlyburly is actually two plays awkwardly joined together. The first is a scathing send-up of American life at a time when corporate values such as greed and indifference had become desirable personal attributes. The second is an existential tragedy about a group of buddies struggling to make sense of their own violent narcissism. Written in 1984, the play holds up frighteningly well as social satire, though it’s still rather leaden (not to say nearly interminable at 3 1/4 hours) as character-based drama. Hurly alone would have sufficed; Burly turns a trenchant skit into pseudo-Eugene O’Neill torture.
The New Group’s revival features a bevy of TV and movie stars (Ethan Hawke, Parker Posey, Catherine Kellner, Bobby Cannavale) as well as actors with real theater cred like Wallace Shawn and Josh Hamilton. Director Scott Elliott, who made his reputation threading actors into gritty ensembles, conjures an unglamorous theatrical cosmos that stands in stark comparison to the slick 1998 film version starring Kevin Spacey and Sean Penn.
Much of the production’s 90-minute first act is a sinister delight of damning comic details, cunningly accentuated by Derek Mc-Lane’s set (a prefab apartment of rented furniture and single-guy squalor) and Jeff Mahshie’s hilarious (remember velour?) costumes. Not only is everyone wasted most of the time, but the milieu itself is a wasteland of ruthless Hollywood ambition.
As Eddie, the casting agent who senses his life is slipping its moorings, Hawke conveys the frustration of the intelligent man underemploying his native gifts. Eddie lies in a hangover-ish haze on his couch, clinging to the faded dignity of a shrunken Harvard T-shirt as his ass crack hangs out of his boxers. His roommate and business partner, Mickey, smarter than Eddie though lacking his emotional complexity, is a master of manipulation. (Hamilton portrays him as a diabolical dandy, donning a red satin robe one minute, socklessly attending a funeral the next.) When not rationalizing why he bagged Eddie’s girlfriend, Mickey takes sport in undermining the fragile confidence of their frequent houseguest Phil, a tough-guy actor (sensitively portrayed by Cannavale) who can’t stop bashing in the faces of the women who sleep with him even though he can’t live without them.
Rabe, like his macho contemporaries Mamet and Shepard, lacks the ability to imagine female characters on their own terms. Hurlyburly is meant to be a critique of stunted male development in the warped context of our cutthroat, make-it-here-make-it-now culture. Still, it’s disturbing the way the play’s women are all fetishistic ciphers.
Kellner plays the stripper Bonnie, who goes out on a date with Phil only to be thrown out of her own car. Her fresh geniality makes it clear that it’s Phil who has the problem. She may be little more than a ditzy sex toy, but she’s a damn good-spirited one. The same could be said of Halley Wegryn Gross’s Donna, the runaway waif given to Eddie as a “gift” by Artie (Wallace Shawn ludicrously kitted out as an oily screenwriter). She appears at the end as a kind of unwitting angel to Eddie—ever ready, in her strung-out way, to serve.
Yet it’s a woman who hijacks the stage from the men: Posey’s delirious, flying-saucer turn as Darlene, a fashion photographer given to unintelligible monologues as she bounces between Eddie’s and Mickey’s beds, is the standout performance. Sure it’s a cartoon part, but when Posey’s retro frizz starts bobbing during one of her alcoholic rants, who could resist her crazy truth?
Elliott renders the play’s brutal masculine world with surface élan. For a while it’s compulsively funny, particularly the scene that ends the first act featuring Hawke and Posey reconciling with their knickers drawn down to their ankles, clumsily attempting to get to the bedroom upstairs. Hurlyburly, however, needs more than just an instinct for visual gags. It needs a director who can impose shape and meaning on Rabe’s hurly-burly sprawl.