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Theatre in Review: Des Moines (Theatre for a New Audience)

Heather Alicia Simms, Michael Shannon. Photo: Travis Emery Hackett

It's a conundrum, I know, but the weirder Des Moines gets, the duller it becomes -- largely, I suspect, because it has no animating spirit of its own. Making its belated New York premiere, this 2007 drama by the late Denis Johnson, long acclaimed for his novels and short stories, is a kind of dramatic spook house, haunted by the shades of other playwrights' better, more vivid works. It strains to unsettle, using stratagems so well-worn that they have lost the power to provoke. If I had to guess, I'd say that Johnson probably didn't spend much time going to the theatre; if he had, I doubt he would have come up with something as derivative as this.

A major clue to the play's intentions can be found in Riccardo Hernández's set, a detailed kitchen resting on an exposed understructure; it's a study in naturalism with quote marks. Nevertheless, Des Moines begins on a thoroughly straightforward note. Dan, a cab driver in the town of the title, is bemused that one of his fares has died in an airplane crash; he has been contacted by the man's widow, Mrs. Drinkwater, who is avid to identify her husband's final words. (As it happens, they apparently were "Orange juice, please" -- not much of an epitaph.) Meanwhile, Dan's wife, Marta, has invited Michael, their parish priest, over for a family conference. Marta has dire news to impart: She has cancer "head to toe," leaving her with only months to live.

Up to this point, Des Moines could pass for a Marsha Norman-style inventory of bleak heartland lives; a tableau in which Marta stares blankly at the microwave oven while Dan appears lost in thought is a portrait of unspoken desolation. However, Johnson has already started to iron in the kinks: Dan reports seeing Michael standing outside a gay bar, wearing rouge and lipstick. Then the upstage French doors open and out comes Jimmy, Dan and Marta's adopted child, a trans woman confined to a wheelchair thanks to a botched sex change operation. (The doctor, Jimmy says, "did a caudal anesthetic which is an anesthetic in my tailbone and my tailbone never woke up. I'm sure it's having a beautiful dream.") In any case, she rolls around the house, sporting sunglasses, a Santa hat, and sparkly silver boots, speaking into a karaoke mic. Then the grief-addled Mrs. Drinkwater shows up and soon everyone is seated at the table doing "depth chargers," a variation on the boilermaker in which a shot of whiskey is dropped, glass and all, into a beer.

After a couple rounds of depth chargers, Des Moines features some serious acting out, including inebriated renditions of "Folsom Prison Blues," "Love Me Tender," and "Kansas City;" contemplations of a once-green urban district being devoured by urban sprawl; musings on the "terrifying" factory nearby that makes "everything from bedpans to wristbands;" and memories of Dan and Marta's "tragic, angelic" daughter who died young, before the scene descends into chaos followed by an inconclusive morning-after reckoning.

The play commits to none of the above, remaining content to roll them out, one after the other, to no particular impact. Johnson piles on the incidents of drunken, desperate behavior, apparently intent on exposing the bizarre underside of these otherwise banal working-class lives. But his choices are arbitrary and not particularly provocative; everybody's favorite punching bag, the Middle American family, is once again revealed to be a repository of eccentricity and despair. Much of the time, Des Moines comes across as a school-of-Sam Shepard exercise, but one can detect echoes of David Rabe and even film director David Lynch.

Director Arin Arbus has recruited some very fine actors to take part in these random, morose, and liquor-soaked doings. Arliss Howard and Johanna Day make a persuasive study in mutual anomie as Dan and Marta. Michael Shannon, struggling to liven up the cliché of the whiskey priest, delivers most of Michael's lines in a monotone suggestive of clinical depression; the major exception is the moment when he enters, joyously announcing that he just got married -- to Mrs. Drinkwater's late husband. (Don't think about it; it passes.) As Mrs. Drinkwater, Heather Alicia Simms is asked to make plausible that her character would instantly join in drunken revelry with a bunch of strangers; she does it, all right, whether it makes sense or not. Hari Nef is a real attention-getter as Jimmy, even if the character often seems to be a rough draft for John Cameron Mitchell's Hedwig. (The apparent use of transsexuality as a shock tactic feels particularly dated.) Still, any playwright would be happy to have this quintet at his, her, or their disposal.

Hernández's set is well-lit, from above and below, by Scott Zielinski. Qween Jean's costumes are solid examples of everyday wear, with a little extra creativity expended on Jimmy's Yule-themed ensemble. Mikaal Sulaiman's sound design includes such effects as an offstage television, a plane taking off, and Cole Porter's "I Get a Kick Out of You." It's hard to see Des Moines as anything but a compendium of borrowed ideas that never acquires much energy or life of its own. One can understand Theatre for a New Audience's desire to present a work by a writer with a major reputation, albeit in other formats. One can understand better that, as per the program notes, artistic director Jeffrey Horowitz hesitated over it for nearly a decade. It seems pretty clear that his initial impulse was the right one. --David Barbour

(19 December 2022)

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