“The worst mistake is to think you know the city,” says one hard-boiled detective to another, just before their stakeout turns grisly.
That nugget of cop wisdom—the last his buddy will hear—should hang on a banner over playwright-director Julia Jarcho’s new production. Grimly Handsome (now running at Incubator Arts) is a fun, noir-inflected ode to the vast mysteries of the metropolis. In three contrasting sections, Jarcho shows us how little we know about the people we encounter in this town, how secrets hide in broad daylight, and how everyone wrestles in public with bewildering inner urges.
In the play’s first sequence, the lonely young Natalia (Jenny Seastone Stern) befriends a couple of nice Balkan Christmas tree sellers (Ben Williams and Pete Simpson), who invite her into their “forest” on the street. Next, two investigators interrogate a murder’s eyewitness while concealing domestic truths from each other. Then, as a shadowy neighborhood reels from serial killings, Grimly Handsome veers from an urban jungle into the animal kingdom, delivering a terrifically disorienting finale with three pontificating red pandas.
Jarcho’s writing enters exciting territory when it blurs lines between concrete dialogue and the characters’ surging nonsensical thoughts. In the station house debrief scene, for instance, facts and fantasies mash, with darkly funny results. But these mental excursions call for a bolder, more complete overall staging. The dexterous acting trio jumps from role to role here, but the production often feels tentative—more rhythmic tightness would help. (Jarcho, a frequent collaborator with the New York City Players, does not adopt that company’s signature deadpan, but sometimes resists fully invested speech in this language-loaded project.)
Even so, it’s hard to shake the unsettling thoughts induced by this paranoid panorama. Leaving Grimly Handsome, you might find yourself watching out for corpses as you step over discarded evergreens on the curb. As Jarcho reminds us, you never know.