With a passing nod to Dante, Lee Blessing’s User’s Guide to Hell very quickly sets up a hell of abstractions. There are rules here but there are even more the possibilities explored through a sequence of fairly concise encounters with the residents of hell. Here hell has people and recognizable locations but somehow takes a lot to live up to the preconceived notions of its newest resident. Bernie Madoff (Edward James Hyland) and his guide Verge (David Deblinger) both search through and even argue out the very idea of hell (including who, if any one is in charge) while touring the neighborhood. In lesser hands the idea and production could have been a gimmicky and ultimately banal evening of theater. In the good care of Lee Blessing and Project Y Theater Company, this is thoughtful witty theater and a production well worth discussion once you’ve stopped laughing.
Who cares about hell anyway? As a potential destination in a supposed hereafter based on a person’s behavior in the here-and-now… hell just doesn’t carry the weight it once did culturally. Currently the concept of hell seems more commonly associated with inner turmoil, angst, and, of course, other people. So why set a play in hell as both a locale and a result? Perhaps, because regardless of their religious or spiritual belief, when confronted by evil acts human beings want repercussions. And based on the havoc wrecked on countless lives, who wouldn’t expect that to be the just reward for Bernie Madoff to take up residence there in his afterlife?
A User’s Guide to Hell runs with that premise and sets up an array of other residents in hell, both known and unknown to Medoff. From the “little people” in his life, to random unknown and famous inhabitants of hell, to one of his children, Madoff encounters them all as Verge shows him that indeed this version of hell “is all there is”. Within this myriad of scenes, there are enough set ups exploring various possibilities that the piece could become an endless array of one-off jokes. Instead the script is well set up by director, Michole Biancosino, as each scene has interesting questions and each of the main characters has a reason to be on stage. Most of hell’s residents are brought to life by Woolly Mammoth veterans Erika Rose (who has moments of spontaneity that are so joyous to be part of) and (the solid and skilled) Eric Sutton. Their range provides an excellent foil for the precise and engaging work of David Deblinger. As Verge, the one man welcome wagon for hell, he has a lovely combination of pleasantness tinged with menace. All three are playing their roles with a slightly heightened clown theater energy that is great fun and fascinates. It heightens the precariousness of this reality and ensures the intelligence is not weighed down but breathes. In contrast, the banal, almost every day energy of Edward James Hyland’s Bernie Madoff, counter balances. He creates a Madoff who is disturbingly ordinary, patently a jerk and not mythic at all - just a guy. There is no inane plea for sympathy but he is believably stuck in a world he does not have a way of resolving. There are moments when additional characters are needed and to fill that, director Biancosino has integrated around all this an ensemble of extra players thoughtfully used and to purpose.
These talents in tandem with smart design make for a fine production. The right level of physical production is provided by the concise set of Kevin Judge; succinct, savvy video design by Shawn Duan, simple but pointed costume design of Emily Deangelis and a lighting design by Ben Hagen that manages to hit the exact level of blinding without creating hostility towards the design itself.
A User’s Guide to Hell provides thoughtful and funny theater. It is a production well worth seeing, and considering, in this life.