Volume 74, Number 40 | February 9 — 16, 2005

Acorn Theatre
410 W. 42nd St.
Tue.-Sat. 8 p.m.., Sat. 2 p.m.
$50, 212- 279-4200$49.50-$57.50 (212) 239-6200


Meaninglessness revisited
The New Group’s revival of “Hurlyburly” is pitch perfect, but the story’s time has passed

Photo by Carol Rosegg
Ethan Hawke (right) is Eddie, the emotional center of a dysfunctional group of mostly men, here being courted by Phil, played by Bobby Cannavale, a lizard-like hanger-on.

The New Group’s artistic director Scott Elliott has earned the rep to stock his productions with A-list actors, and the roster for his new revival of David Rabe’s “Hurlyburly” is packing in the subscription crowd. Women in furs elbow snoring husbands. Why are they snoring? They can’t help themselves, despite an expertly acted production of a play that’s too knowing for its own good.

A coke party gone awry, “Hurlyburly” blew onto Broadway in the tweaked-out mid-‘80s amid a flurry of acclaim. Those were the days of free-basing celebrities and Wall Street crackheads. The story of Hollywood’s human marginalia on a masculinist bender for self-annihilation was hit an existential chord and was a hit. Rabe seemed to be gunning for a classic with dialogue that’s almost Shakespearean in its hyper-wit and metaphors.

But 20 years hence, the play’s wordiness just feels monochromatic. Everyone, no matter their level of education, speaks like a maniacal linguist. Their revelations, or lack thereof, drown in the verbose maelstrom. The effect is a highbrow flatness that even the excellent pacing and acting of this production can’t ameliorate.

“Hurlyburly” is nearly three hours long, but the production careens at coke-addled speed. The acting is, for the most part, superb. The actors manage to pull laughs from the dystopic script. The comic chemistry is particularly fine between Parker Posey as Darleen and Ethan Hawke as Eddie in a scene culminating in a sort of non-sex––lights-out when she steps from his bedroom door to the bathroom, interrupting passion to waggle her birth control––that signifies the start of a dysfunctional relationship:

Darlene: “I feel scared is what I feel. Good, too. I feel good, but mainly scared.”

Eddie: “I’m scared.”

Darlene: “I mean, a year ago, I was a basket case. If we had met a year ago, I wouldn’t have had a prayer.”

Eddie: “Me, too. A year ago, I was nuts...”

They go on like this, all the while undressing and hurling themselves about Eddie’s apartment. Hilariously pretentious, it’s a scene that an audience of therapy-saturated urbanites can relate to.

Parker Posey could read the obituaries and make them funny, but Ethan Hawke does his damnedest to keep up. He’s hardworking. Onstage almost constantly, he carries the play’s burly bulk. At the end, he stumbles up for his bow; he’s exhausted. Sincerity isn’t Hawke’s problem. Or it is. Because sincerity is two parts commitment, one part earnestness. Hawke’s earnestness is too wide-eyed and bushy-tailed. He’s got none of the macho charisma that would explain these other weak souls’ attraction to Eddie. Ever the boy ingenue, Hawke plays Eddie like a squirrel junked up on kola nuts.

Maybe that’s why Bobby Cannavale’s Phil is so desirous of him. Eddie is Phil’s aging twink. His homosexual attraction to Eddie is only barely latent. In a few volcanic scenes, Phil’s gestures are violently sexual. At other times, he’s a puppy mewling at Eddie’s feet. Cannavale cranks the queer subtext up so loudly that you get the idea this is Phil’s real problem. He’s not just a paranoid schizophrenic; he’s a self-hating closet case.

It helps that Phil’s estranged wife, Suzie, never appears. She’s a concept, not a character. She represents marriage, children, stability, the possibility––no matter how fraught––of a functional intimate relationship with a woman. Actually, she’s an impossibility for Phil, or for any of these guys.

All of them have estranged families in the wings. They’ve dumped the concept of wives for the reality of “bitches.” They take in the runaway Donna (Halley Wegryn Gross), call her a “pet” and hump her like dogs. They hate women; they’re desperate for each other. For all we know, Suzie is just another voice in Phil’s head. Phil even describes her as such: “Right in front of me was like this cloud with her face on it, but it wasn’t just her, but this cloud...” Suzie is incorporeal because Phil doesn’t crave her bodily, he craves Eddie.

Phil has competition. Josh Hamilton is terrific as Mickey, Eddie’s cynical roommate with a smarmy moustache. He prances onstage in a short, red, silk robe. He demolishes Phil and Eddie verbally, like only a good queen could. He bares the homoeroticism by joking that Phil and Eddie have fallen in love. Only, Mickey isn’t gay. He’s fey the way Warren Beatty is fey in “Shampoo.” He’s a reptilian womanizer. Against Eddie’s blow-hot chaos, Mickey is cold-blooded stillness. He double-crosses Eddie with Darlene; he’s merciless to everyone else. He has no conscience, yet he poses as moral arbiter. It’s “a goof,” as he’d say, but it works for him.
They’re a neat Freudian package. Eddie equals ego, Phil is his id and Mickey is his condescending superego. Rabe even writes throwaway references to “that Freudian shit” into the script. Eddie’s third suitor, Artie, is the foil for Eddie’s Oedipal complex. As played by Wallace Shawn in a toupee and typical vaudevillian fashion, Artie is the father figure who brings Eddie a runaway girl to screw but who Eddie rejects and demeans.

The Freudian conceit is accentuated by claustrophobic staging. The play takes place entirely in Eddie and Mickey’s shabby, sunken living room. The set makes the characters’ crises seem entirely internal. Eddie rattles on about how horrible the daily news is, but he’s not going to do anything beyond being tormented about it. Though they’re allegedly casting directors, Eddie and Mickey don’t seem to have work. When Artie jokingly calls them “a couple of desperate guys,” he means it. Eddie is descending into addiction; his world is very small. He’s stuck forever in the oral stage.

Ultimately, that’s the rub with “Hurlyburly,” but it’s a problem in the script, not the production. There’s no evolution, no character development. Eddie opens the play on a coke, pot and booze bender and closes it just the same. He’s alienated his girlfriend, whom he seems to have loved, with his existentialist whining. His friends are sick of him. He’s untouched by the runaway who’s run away and returned. The lights go down on him sitting “ripped,” as he’d say, and “blotto” on his ugly brown couch, staring into the void. Though Scott Elliott is talented and so is his cast, we’re left, in a time of war and political urgencies, searching for the message in this revival, and drawing a blank.

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