nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 25, 2005
It's too long, too shrill, and too excessive for its own good; it wallows self-importantly in a nasty misogynism that becomes dully repetitive and gratuitous; it relies too much on rough language and rough drugs to jolt its audience. Hurlyburly is like its title (I looked it up: it means "Noisy confusion; tumult"); it's like its hard-to-like and impossible-to-respect protagonists, a group of immature, unruly, unreliable guys who can't or won't connect realistically with women or the world, who are articulate and self-involved but not eloquent or self-aware and certainly not self-actualized. Yet, I wound up liking Hurlyburly more than I ever thought I would; was compelled and engaged by it for all of its three-plus hours; definitely entertained and grudgingly admiring.
So David Rabe has either aced the form-as-content/content-as-form thing, or he's just crafted a piece of theatre that works in spite of (because of?) many apparent dramaturgical deficiencies. There's stuff that doesn't really fly in Hurlyburly—dialogue that wants to mimic the poetry of everyday speech, but fails to: that heavily-cadenced, you know, speech that's, uh, supposed to sound, you know, natural and real but sounds instead like bad Woody Allen; not to mention plot points piled on top of plot points in the last fifteen minutes or so that try to explain away the behaviors of some of the characters but never feel anything but contrived and arbitrary—but it finally fails to matter. The noise carries us along; it's easy and even appealing somehow to surrender to the thing and let it sweep us along to its late and bitter conclusion.
It's about four guys. Eddie and Mickey, both casting agents, both in their early 30s, share an apartment somewhere in Hollywood. Not a great apartment, so we conclude that they're not massively successful. Eddie's divorced, with two kids; Mickey wears a wedding ring but is on hiatus from his marriage at the moment (he tells us at one point that he will be going back to his wife someday, but it's not clear whether that's actually true). Both play the system and play around, with differing results: Eddie's personality is obsessive and distorted by severe tunnel vision, while Mickey is aloof and detached to the extent that he's barely with you even when he is. When we meet them they're feuding over a woman, Darlene, and it's clear that (a) Mickey will have her when he wants her, and (b) Eddie will be in agony whether he has her or not.
Eddie's best friend is Phil, an actor-wannabe with a violent streak who's in an on-again/off-again marriage with his second wife, Suzy. There's jail time in Phil's past. Mickey doesn't much like Phil and accurately sizes up the dysfunctional, enabling relationship that Eddie sustains for his pal. It seemed to me that director Scott Elliott and actor Ethan Hawke, who plays Eddie, have introduced a repressed homosexual thing into the mix, which didn't ring true (Elliott overdoes homoerotic subtext in other places too, such as having Mickey parade around for an inordinately long time in bikini briefs in front of his roommate).
Friend to all three, sort of, is the older Artie, another not-very-important cog in Hollywood's machine, but one who's done well enough to feel superior to Eddie, Phil, and Mickey. Artie delivers to them, somewhat startlingly, a pretty young teenage girl named Donna who, he says, was living in the elevator of his apartment building.
We meet a third woman, Bonnie, in the second half of the play: she makes her living as a nude dancer who is famous for using a balloon in provocative ways in her act and for being what we used to call "easy"; Eddie fixes her up with Phil after the latter finally divorces his wife, with disastrous consequences.
Apart from what happens to Phil and Bonnie, which is really ugly, not much else actually occurs in Hurlyburly, except that these people talk endlessly about themselves and their stymied lives. They drink, they do drugs (lots). They talk about having sex but we never actually see them do so.
Now it struck me that if Hurlyburly were set in the present day, these guys would have cell phones and pagers to constantly be answering, providing a distraction from the desperation that dominates their lives and of which they are very much aware. But in the '80s, the only available diversions were coke and scotch and the sound of one's own voice.
So Hurlyburly is a talky, talky play; so how did Rabe and Elliott keep me involved without giving me characters to sympathize or even empathize with? By giving actors so much fodder for their talent: Ethan Hawke, in the marathon role of Eddie, deserves praise just for endurance, but earns it finally for making Eddie layered and believable. Bobby Cannavale, similarly, mines the explosive Phil for complexity and delivers a characterization of surprising depth. Josh Hamilton, as Mickey, has less to work with but he's never less than interesting. Wallace Shawn exploits his own persona as Artie but he's enjoyable to watch. My favorite performance was Halley Wegryn Gross's turn as the teenage pickup Bonnie—she somehow seemed to be the most together person on stage, against the odds. Only Catherine Kellner and Parker Posey, as Bonnie and Darlene respectively, failed to satisfy, with Kellner giving her bimbo rather more intelligence, and Posey rather less, than seemed warranted.
Rabe's portrayal of women, by the way, interested me enormously. On the surface Hurlyburly feels offensively anti-woman; Rabe nails the dumb tough talk of immature men who seem to think of women only as bitches. But brute force excepted, women have all the power in the relationships in this play. I don't know if that's Rabe's point or not, but I was intrigued by it.
Elliott's staging is mostly gripping, though things do flag a bit in the second half. The set design by Derek McLane and, to a lesser extent, the costumes by Jeff Mahshie, seem less naturalistic than the play calls for—there were times when I wondered if Elliott was trying to evoke a heightened reality instead of a normal one. Yet there are things in the script that suggest this as well: such a messy, chaotic play about messy, chaotic lives this turns out to be, with no hope of redemption in sight for the characters or the meandering piece itself. Which is probably the point.