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Freak Show 

Boys will be boys. Especially, it seems, at the squalid tail end of the American dream. The berserk brothers in Sam Shepard's True West reduce their mother's living room to a pile of rubble. David Rabe's Tinseltown wannabe's stumble around in a psychic pig sty. I'm surprised the California Chamber of Commerce hasn't taken out a contract on the authors of these dystopian visions. But maybe, the L.A. Chamber is hip enough to know there's glamour in all this foul-mouthed wit and macho nihilism -- this "now" version of the moveable feast, with its guest list of cannibals and bulimics.

Sounds unappetizing. And on one level, it is. However, the beast has wings. Hurlyburly (currently on the boards in a sterling revival at Le Chat Noir) is like a grotesque demon in flight. The strength of the script is the dialogue -- a hypnotic cataract of pain, coarseness, humor and surprise. Like a cataract, the words pour out with useless, appalling energy -- for everyone in the play is out of control, plunging headlong downward. At the same time, a cataract is all wrong as a metaphor, for the image carries a bracing whiff of the natural world. And Hurlyburly takes place in an sealed off, synthetic room. Nature is what's missing most from the lives of these characters.

To enjoy Hurlyburly, you have to be up for a special kind of a freak show. But, if you are, then you're in luck. For, in Dane Rhodes' well-crafted and imaginative production, you have the opportunity to see the real thing -- which is no everyday occurrence.

Rhodes, who also designed the show, has hung a series of translucent screens that cleverly transform the cabaret stage into a semi-abstract set representing an apartment in the Hollywood Hills. The characters wander amidst this decorative labyrinth, as though lost in a maze of mirrors. And, in fact, the play itself wanders in a similar emotional terrain, somewhere between laughter and panic.

The cast is excellent. C. Caine Lee (whom theater-goers will remember as Chris Lee) plays the central character Eddie, a hyper-articulate underachiever whose main diversion in life is getting ripped and ranting at the television. Eddie is surrounded by his buddies: the seething, violent Phil (Bill Dykes); the elegant, relatively stable Mickey (Christian Middleton); and the desperate, ambitious Artie (mikko). Coke, grass, Valium, Quaaludes and other controlled substances are so relentlessly imbibed in the course of their quandaries, I found myself rising at intermission somewhat unsteadily from a hysterical contact high.

The boys can be very funny, but they are certainly not very happy. They seem to believe women are at the core of their unhappiness -- in particular, their ex-wives. They mourn, as well, for their more-or-less abandoned children. Of course, the "broads" and "bitches" vernacular they toss around (the verbal equivalent of scratching their balls) makes it hard to imagine them in any kind of tender or reciprocal romance with a woman.

While Eddie is the leader of the group, Phil is the engine who drives the plot forward. Phil is the proverbial loose canon. But this cannon is lit and about to go off. There is something in Phil that attracts Eddie. But what? Energy, perhaps, or strong, clear emotions. Phil, the borderline psychotic, is the one durable bond in Eddie's life (unless we are to believe his stoned-out effusions about his child).

But the emotional level of the play remains opaque. Phil's attachment to his wife and child is not redeeming, it's scary. It's the kind of "love" that make judges issue restraining orders. The only love that seems solid and dependable with this crowd is the love of getting high. We are fascinated not by the characters' personal dilemmas so much as by the degenerate miasma in which they stumble, grasping at imitations of some other life they might have lived.

As for the women we meet, they're quite an odd assortment. Genevieve Hardison is thoroughly convincing as Donna, a vague, gentle hippie waif with a placid willingness to screw for her night's lodgings. Veronica Russell's Bonnie is a well-meaning, sadly vulnerable and fatalistic stripper, who has lost all sexual inhibitions, while somehow retaining her humanity. Jesse Meriwether's Darlene brings an eerie practicality to this milieu of biodegradable affections.

Hurlyburly has a cutting-edge, West Coast flavor. But, ironically, the obnoxious male posturing it glorifies has a toney French pedigree. A personal style mixing deliberate crudeness, misogyny and drug-induced stupefaction was perfected by the adolescent French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who recommended "a long, prodigious and rational disordering of all the sense" back in 1872. Plus ca change, plus c'est le meme chose: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

click to enlarge Things get a little crazy for the cast of Hurlyburly, currently on the boards at Le Chat Noir.
  • Things get a little crazy for the cast of Hurlyburly, currently on the boards at Le Chat Noir.
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