The playwright Adam Rapp wrote Ghosts in the Cottonwoods, his first full-length play, some 15 years ago. “It was overwrought,” he said in a recent interview, “overblown with too much self-consciously poetic dialogue.” That seems an apt diagnosis, yet Rapp has decided to direct it for the the Amoralists at Theatre 80 St. Marks. In a cabin in the “Southern Midwest,” a mother (Sarah Lemp) and her adolescent son (Nick Lawson) await the return of the convict elder brother as a storm rages outside and intruders come knocking.
The Amoralists are celebrated for having crafted one of the best dick jokes to grace the stage and a balls-out acting style to match. Rapp coddles the company’s predilections, staging three instances of full-frontal male nudity (though none is particularly comic) and several violent interactions. Some of these scenes are genuinely unsettling, but most tend toward the indulgent—the company seems eager to prove just how raw (very) and outrageous (not particularly) they can appear. There are moments during which one can sense real craft behind the actorly posturing, but these aren’t sustained.
As for the script itself, it trades in a hillbilly grotesque pioneered by Maria Irene Fornes and Sam Shepard (to say nothing of Tobacco Road). Such plays risk participating in an ugly kind of class tourism. Here, from our plush-seated vantage, we’re invited to laugh at these characters’ pain and predicaments, at their ramshackle home, at their moonshine, at their mangled language. Still, this piece defines the themes that have made Rapp’s career—guilt, rage, victimized women, the competing obligations of masculinity. Ghosts, it seems, continues to haunt him.