The Redheaded Man
nytheatre.com review by Jack Hanley
August 13, 2008
Repression of painful memories, once commonly considered the arch-enemy of a peaceful mind, and still often targeted by therapists, may not be all that bad. Recent studies suggest that repression is an important defense mechanism that allows us to move forward in our lives and not ruminate on the past. It may be as important to our health as a macrophage wrapping itself around an invading microorganism.
In The Redheaded Man, a risky yet very successful mix of pharmaceutical farce and earnest drama, Halley Bondy tackles this fiercely debated new perspective and smartly avoids making any firm opinion of her own. Although she does swat us once too often with the over-medicated-America meme, it does serve for some great laughs in this quality production. (And if I'm laughing, I can't very well be objecting.)
Brian, the central character, is a young savant of architecture whose mind is tortured by a constant barrage of images depicting internal biological functions in action. Every bite of food he swallows he sees floating in the gurgling digestive acids of his stomach. He can see the valves of his heart slapping faster when his anxiety fits charge. Video projections, crafted beautifully by designer Jesse Garrison (with animator David Wicks), are seamlessly built into the production and convey Brian's anatomical obsessions as well as the very anatomy of his thought processes. Bravo to the director and the designer for their perfectly balanced use of the technology to underscore the narrative as well as the complexity of the character's inner life. The video is startling at times and at times poignant, but never distracting. The expert use of projection alone makes this show not to be missed.
Brian has one other mental abnormality, and that is the Redheaded Man; a longtime hallucinated person who comes in and out of his life delivering peremptory advice and sarcastic admonishments. Brian believes the man is some sort of manifestation of memories of his father, who died when he was a child. In a way he feels comfortable with the authoritative presence; the Redheaded Man has become a helpful means for him to process his world. The talented Bruce Bluett delights in the role as the eponymous character, delivering a corporate spokesperson-like persona with creepy charm. His monologue toward the end of the play is potent and unforgettable.
Also unforgettable is the fantastic Michelle Sims, playing Brian's kooky, pill-popping psychiatrist Dr. Jones. She's a force of comedy—with just a look, she can bring down the house. The doctor is a shill for a pharmaceutical company, and is obligated to push their new psychotropic on her patients. Brian is on the med, and although it evaporates his visions of blood and guts and the Redheaded Man, the side effects are intolerable. More problematic is that he finds inspiration for his architectural designs from the intrusive imagery and his redheaded visitor.
So is he insane, or are all his mental anomalies really gifts of inspiration, as the postcard for the play prominently asks. I don't think this question is as central as the playwright apparently hoped. It becomes a bit lost in Bondy's overly emphasized foreshadowing of some revelation of Brian's childhood—a repressed memory—that will explain his condition.
Waiting for the big reveal of the dark secret, Bondy's story comes close to stumbling into a TV drama plotted out by Dr. Phil. But it takes an interesting turn and avoids the conventional route whereby truth heals all wounds, and instead asks the controversial question: Is it better not to remember? And superficiality is not in director Jessica Fisch's playbook. She carves out haunting and hilarious scenes with an artful eye for movement and adventurous staging. Overall the show has a finely polished sheen and it may well be one of the finer productions of the FringeNYC Festival this year.