Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


When one attends a play with two intermissions, one expects a marathon. Yet through the superhuman efforts of its actors, the Who Wants Cake? production of David Rabe's Hurlyburly better approximates a three-hour sprint. Fueled by cocaine and self-importance, the characters spew paranoia and cerebral nonsense at each other, rarely managing to actually converse. Marijuana doesn't even slow them down, even though they smoke plenty. The dichotomy created by this cruelly vivid world is the fascination of the antihero: although I personally wouldn't want to interact with these people for any length of time, the remarkable performances behind the characters make them intriguing to study.

The play concerns 1980s Hollywood and a group of men somewhere in the process of being chewed up and spit out by the business. All the action takes place at the home of casting directors Eddie (Stephen Blackwell) and Mickey (Jon Ager), who, together with actor Phil (Joel Mitchell) and writer Artie (Charles Reynolds), form an alliance of superiority and derision sufficient to make the crass, disrespectful guys of Swingers look like Cub Scouts. Blackwell is paranoid and listless; Mitchell once again reinvents the lovable hateable; Reynolds tries achingly hard to fit in, even as he's belittled for his successes; and Ager's cool unflappability is his best work — at least that I've seen — to date. The men are at their peak in a long scene at the beginning of the second act, all playing off each other easily, so comfortably ingrained in their odious roles. Pitch-perfect direction by Joe Bailey generates masterful, layered beats that flow from hilarious group storytelling to tandem solitude.

You can't have a man's world without sex, and, true to type, the only women worth these guys' time are all too willing to be treated like chattel. Theirs are smaller roles, but Darlene (Cassandra McCarthy) is delightfully jittery as she suppresses her desire for normal romance, and Bonnie (Jamie Warrow) tries to make sense of an out-of-control situation with chilling gravity and level-headedness not found elsewhere. As the barely legal Donna, Ashley Shamoon brings a terrifying naiveté into the lion's den, but the willful denseness of her performance sometimes falls into dull recitation.

The set is a pawn shop of oddities, reminding us that before iPods and home theater surround sound, people gave places of honor in their homes to the combo record player/tape deck. Designer Anthony Karpinski's bachelor pad with kitchenette is equal parts ostentatious and sad, but the vast details feel real, not mocking. So, too, are Vince Kelly's costumes: hello, purple tapered-leg jeans and Cosby sweater — blessedly, not in the same outfit. The lighting design doesn't fool around much, but I found myself intrigued by the lights subtly dimming at times during the action, creating a tremendous sense of fading in and out of consciousness as the party continued all around.

The thing about Hurlyburly that is probably most difficult to nail down is its story. To say there isn't one is going too far, but even so, these frequently high individuals find themselves in circuitous conversations, doing copious amounts of nothing and largely writing off or talking down to each other. Even the definite plot points have a loose traction, at best, because the audience isn't all that encouraged to like these unlikable characters and thus may not care what happens to them. The play is pretty clearly suggesting that the characters are in limbo, unable to change or do anything for themselves, but it's difficult to accept this is what it's about and reconcile that with the long running time. Still, like Eddie or hate him, Blackwell's third-act scenes are undeniably scorching, and numerous moments prior hold similar weight. I admit the story didn't speak to me as a whole, but the obvious craft behind this production's myriad portraits of human anguish is certainly worthy of appreciation.


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