Bingo with the Indians
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
November 7, 2007
If you already thought Adam Rapp's plays were dark, you ain't seen nothin' yet. Rapp's latest, Bingo with the Indians, is perhaps his darkest foray yet into grimy surrealism. While the play has its share of story and conflict, Rapp plays fast and loose with plot and structure, so much so that most of what happens hinges on a succession of increasingly unbelievable events. Despite being well-performed by the members of the Flea Theater's resident acting company, The Bats, and directed with sharp atmospheric dread by Rapp himself, the world of Bingo is not a fun (or particular credible) place to visit.
The setting is a cramped New Hampshire motel room, where a ragtag group of New York indie theater artists have convened for an unusual fundraising effort: they're going to rob the local bingo game in order to finance their next production. Dee, the leader of the operation—and "the most underappreciated director in New York"—is a native of the small town they're visiting and knows the ins and outs of the bingo parlor (i.e., the town church). She is flanked by Wilson, the sarcastically stoic stage manager, and Stash, a narcissistic coke-addicted actor. With a bunch like this something is bound to go awry. And, it does. But, before that happens, the group encounters Steve, the sweet, shy, teenage son of the motel owners; his jumpy bipolar mother (known only as Mrs. Wood); and Jackson, a newly christened lesbian-in-training. (And, yes, there is one Indian, whose appearance is a moment I would hate spoil.)
Bingo has a lot of promise, but the play's off-track logic derails its potential almost immediately. For instance, it makes no discernible sense why Dee would choose to pull this heist in her hometown, a place where she could very easily be spotted by any of the locals (including, maybe, her parents). When she is eventually recognized by Steve (his older sister went to high school with Dee), she goes ahead with the plan anyway, knowing full well that Steve's dad is also the town sheriff. What?!
Then, there's the group's collective treatment of Steve, which is so uniformly horrible—they mock, taunt, threaten, and abuse him, for no good reason at all—that it would make any sensible person leave the room in a nanosecond. But, not only does Steve put up with it, he actually wants to run off to New York with them. Tell me that makes sense. Maybe Rapp is trying to convey that Steve isn't a sensible person, but whatever point he intends to make by doing so is never lucidly established.
Bingo also takes a major digression in its middle section and shifts focus after Dee and Stash run off to pull the heist, leaving Steve and Wilson behind at the motel. The robbery almost becomes an afterthought as the play centers on their bizarre scene together, which includes the two of them reading an increasingly creepy scene from the play Wilson is writing. What happens from there is genuinely surprising and totally messed up.
But, alas, none of it makes any sense. As Bingo progresses, the mental acumen of the characters comes under heavy audience scrutiny. They can't possibly think that any of this is a good idea, right? I guess they must, or else they wouldn't be doing it. But, Rapp can't actually expect us to go along with this, can he? The play's surreal and extreme nature suggests otherwise, and after a while the author seems to be more interested in how the line between theatre and reality gets blurred every day. But, what point he's trying to make about this, I couldn't tell you.
It doesn't help that the characters, while vividly written, are some of the most unsavory people one could possibly imagine. They are a shallow, mean, cruel bunch that you would not want to know at all. Rapp, I'm guessing, realizes this and relishes the chance to throw us in a room with them to see how (or if) we squirm. Fun for him, maybe, but not for us.
I should also mention that there's quite a bit of nudity in Bingo, including a shocking onstage sex scene between two of the characters. Like much of what else is here—and considering the close confines of the Flea's downstairs theatre—it feels gratuitous and unnecessary.
However, Rapp the director knows how to mount the dread. His facility for building tension is quickly becoming unsurpassed, and keeps the audience mostly riveted long past the play's expiration date. The production is also vigorously acted, and contains some memorable performances. The always terrific Rob Yang is scary and unsettling as Wilson, revealing the borderline sociopath underneath the stoic façade. Evan Enderle matches him note for note as Steve, playing him as a shy puppy dog that anyone would want to take home. Cooper Daniels makes the most of the play's flashiest role, Stash, and turns in a scene-stealing turn full of crude comic invention. In truth, all of the actors come through in the clutch even as the script continually lets them down. Whatever virtues the production has are largely attributable to them.
For an admirer of Rapp's like myself, Bingo with the Indians is a letdown. His imagination and willingness to experiment are both alive and on display here, but I fear they get the better of him this time. Near the play's end, one of the characters gravely says, "Someday everyone will know what this was all about." God, I hope so. When they do, please let me know.