Dinner With Friends Like These ...

evildoers300.jpgIn September 2001, President Bush vowed to rid the world of “evildoers,” and with this rhetorical flourish, he singlehandedly resurrected that Biblical archaism for contemporary use.  So, you could be excused for thinking that the Yale Repertory Theatre’s latest offering, The Evildoers by David Adjmi, is a political drama—perhaps a satire, but have we reached that point? - -about international terrorism.

The terror depicted in The Evildoers is much more (and literally) domestic, but there is something of the weltgeist of our terrorized planet on ugly, jaw-dropping display in this world premiere production of the play.

The play starts on familiar territory.  Two married couples, longtime friends, linger over the remains of a chi-chi meal, alternately bantering about topical themes and retreading well-worn conversational territory, as old friends will do.  Jerry, a charming if alcoholic psychoanalyst, and his wife Carol, a jaded wedding planner, show signs of personal friction, but they seem to have reached a marital détente.  The same cannot be said of the other couple, Martin and Judy.  As the dinner goes on, Martin broods on the sidelines, until, in an outburst as violent as it is sudden, he (verbally) assaults Judy and storms out of the restaurant.

At first, Adjmi seems poised to deliver a haute-bourgeois version of Donald Margulies’s Pulitzer-prize winner, Dinner With Friends, a play about mid-life crises and the small-scale effects of divorce on inter-couple friendships.  If Adjmi cultivates this expectation, which he seems deliberately to do, he does so only to dash it.  As Martin temporarily moves in with Jerry and Carol, the play gradually turns more urgent and absurd.  (Here the model, before it too is discarded, seems to be another Pulitzer-winner, Albee’s A Delicate Balance.)

Martin, energized by his separation from Judy, sets out to discover greater “authenticity”—a move which includes coming out.  However, even as he sets out on this quest, he himself becomes more affected, less authentic.  Mere days after his coming-out, for instance, he sports a fuchsia v-neck, a twink-y hair-poof, and the sibilant Ss of a counter-cultural queen.  However, Martin discards this identity as quickly as he donned it, becoming obsessed, instead, with a personal philosophy that could be described only as a volatile mixture of Biblical fundamentalism and pop-psychology truism.

Convinced, by an interpretation of “love thine enemy” that takes no account of paradox, that “love” must not mean what we have always assumed, and swayed by the popular notion that suffering is good for us, Martin decides that the best way to show his “love” to Jerry and Carol is to dole out measured amounts of pain and loss.  Martin’s spiritual medicine is a kind of homeopathy: a little poison to make you better.

Martin’s acts, some of them insidiously evil and others grotesquely overt, do force Jerry and Carol into a primal interdependence that overshadows their petty differences, but this is all we can say for Martin’s “success..  His plan quickly spins out of control, and the play ends in a downright cataclysm of physical and spiritual carnage.

In his final appearance, Martin declares, “Do you know what the opposite of sin is?  It’s not virtue, it’s faith.  And you get it by having a principle. You don’t have to feel anything.  Real love isn’t about feelings.  It’s deeper than that.”  The larger ideas of the play, cast as they are in Martin’s manic rants, do get muddled at times, but in this line, at least, Adjmi’s goal seems clear enough.  He wants to conduct a reductio ad absurdum of two fundamentalisms: religious and psychoanalytic.

If part of the play’s mission is to destroy the psychoanalytic notion that our true identity lies deep within, and that suffering and reflection must “strip, strip, strip” away the layers of artifice, Adjmi has also clearly set out to oppose the psychoanalytic tendency in so much contemporary theater.  When Jerry says lamely, of his role as psychoanalyst, “I just mirror them back to themselves,” it is hard not to hear a critique of the kind of theater that simply mirrors us back to ourselves in the hope that we’ll gain greater insight into the workings of the human psyche.  Adjmi’s deliberate flirtations with such forms of realistic and quasi-realistic theater early in the play only serve to strengthen our sense of how distant the final product is from these predecessors.

As even this reductive summary and analysis should make clear, the play proceeds in fits and starts, picking up and discarding different styles and tones at a head-spinning rate.  Director Rebecca Bayla Taichman and her strong cast commit unflinchingly to the play, hewing closely to its many shifting forms.  For this, they deserve great praise.  They show the kind of respect—an openness to taking the work on its own terms—that every up-and-coming playwright deserves and that so few receive.

Stephen Barker Turner and Johanna Day, as Jerry and Carol, are particularly good.  Turner is charming when soused and heart-wrenching as the victim of Martin’s schemes and of that old delirium tremens.  Day, for her part, does a superb and subtle job of illuminating Carol’s flinty vulnerability.  The scene of their reconciliation to one another is the best in the play.

All of this is built on the foundation of bold design.  Riccardo Hernandez’s glass and steel set combines with Stephen Strawbridge’s stark lighting design to create a world that can flip instantly from cool sophistication to chilling nightmare.  But it is Bray Poor’s sound design (known to Rep regulars as the artist behind the equally impressive soundscape of last season’s Eurydice) that does most to capture the tone of Adjmi’s play.  Sonically, the play sweeps us from classical euphony to punk cacophony, from intricate electronica to the blunt sounds of a nigh-apocalyptic storm.  This sound design deserves much credit for giving this production the relentless driving force the play requires.

Overall, the play showcases a strong developing voice.  Adjmi has quite an ear for whip-smart dialogue, yet he manages never to reduce his characters to talking heads.  What’s more, all four characters in The Evildoers are rich, strange creations—and Adjmi’s mixture of realistic intelligibility and absurdist opacity makes his characters as hauntingly unknowable as they are uncannily familiar.

It’s not a perfect play, by any means.  Occasionally, the play seems to spiral out of Adjmi’s own control.  The In-Yer-Face spectacle that he injects into certain scenes—including a severed body part, even the memory of which keeps me cringing—seem as over-earnest in their lust for a new “authenticity” as Martin’s various affectations.  (I wish I could say this symmetry is intended, but Adjmi seems genuinely to embrace these tactics.)

Moreover, the rambling conversations where Martin births his destructive ideology often sacrifice clarity to kinetic force.  In all of the stammering grandiloquence of these scenes, you can never quite tell whether it’s Adjmi or his character who can’t quite compress Martin’s ideas into unitary thoughts.

For these and other reasons, I acknowledge that this play will polarize audiences.  Some will love it, and others will simply hate it.  No matter what, though, it is a fine display of craft on all sides.  Taichman and the rest have constructed a dynamic night of theater and brought us, in all its rawness, a singular new voice.  Love it or hate it, get used to its tones, because the Rep has already commissioned Adjmi for another play.  I, for one, am eager to see where Adjmi will swerve next.

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