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Theatre in Review: Garbageman (Chain Theatre)

Kirk Gostkowski, Deven Anderson. Photo: David Zayas, Jr.

Buddy and Dan, the clueless working stiffs who make up the entire cast of Keith Huff's new play, refer to themselves as "murky friends." By this, they mean their relationship is a sometime thing; later, when they turn to criminal activities, it provides them with plausible alibis; after all, murky friends don't keep tabs on each other's activities, do they? This strategy doesn't prevent them from getting tangled up in endless misadventures that lands one of them in jail and sends the other into exile. As Dan notes, "Yunno what my grandpa would say? He'd say: 'This friendship provides all the satisfaction of a sour pickle'." That's more than you can claim for the satisfactions of Garbageman.

Murky friends or not, Buddy shows up on Dan's doorstep asking to buy a gun. The reason for this request is relayed in a bizarre shaggy dog story that consumes the better part of Garbageman's unconscionably long first act. It involves Buddy, who drives a sanitation truck, in confrontations with a pair of luxury-car-owning Karens, plus a trio of head injuries. The first head is found, decapitated, in a recycling plant and adopted by Buddy, who enjoys talking to it. ("I keep it for company," he says, admitting that it smells of formaldehyde.) In the second case, the head is smashed to bits in the grotesque accidental killing of a small boy. The third involves a crippling blow delivered to Buddy's son. "I've detected a major head motif in my life," Buddy says. D'ya think?

Did I mention Garbageman is a comedy? Anyway, Buddy's son ends up in a coma, and the gun is intended to take out the guy who caused it. Instead, Buddy and Dan end up in a shambolic Strangers-on-a-Train-style murder swap. (Dan, who works in a mailroom and gets no respect, has an ex-wife he'd like to eliminate.) Like everything else, the plan goes awry, so, looking for something to do, they head for DC, joining the crowd at the January 6 Capitol riot. Even then, nothing works out: Buddy's car disappears and, as he reasonably points out, if the Feds open his trunk and find a pile of guns plus a loose human head, there will be hell to pay. And Dan is recorded on video, beating the tar out of a Capitol policeman.

Apparently, Garbageman is meant to be a dark satire on the white working-class alienation that fuels the MAGA movement. Buddy and Dan are losers at work and in their personal lives, lacking direction and unsupported by a larger community. Dan is obsessed with Korean TV dramas -- his current favorite is Where the Camellia Blooms -- and Buddy pals around with that severed head, which, he claims, talks to him. But Huff's reliance on crude, repellent gags undermines any possible interest in this hapless pair. By way of expressing his resentment for Ivy Leaguers, Dan says, "I don't even watch college sports. I'd rather jerk off for the entire month of March than participate in March Madness." Commenting on Buddy's wealthy female antagonists, Dan says, "What league are they in? The league of boob jobs and face lifts? Sue-V and Jane the Hummer probably got the same plastic surgeon: Dr. Botox Sugar Daddy." When Buddy offers to set up Dan with some female companionship, the latter overrules him, announcing, "I'm an open fuckin wound, man. I'm an open, infected, pus-filled wound." I'll second that.

The worst thing about Garbageman, aside from its crushing overlength, is its portrayal of Buddy and Dan as passive, apolitical dolts to whom disaster just happens naturally. The invaders of the Capitol building may be the tragically deluded pawns of malign forces, but they have their beliefs; Huff's attempt at spinning this attack on democracy into a wacky bromantic black comedy is seriously off-putting. It certainly leaves the actors Deven Anderson (Buddy) and Kirk Gostkowski (Dan) with few options. Design values are minimal, although a major downside of Richard Hoover and Kis Knekt's set is that it requires so many lengthy changeovers, exacerbating the already slow pace and aggravating Greg Cicchino's listless direction.

Surely, other playwrights will weigh in on the events of January 6 and the discontent that bred them. Some writers may well mine dark humor from that dark day. By that time, however, it seems likely that Garbageman will be long forgotten. --David Barbour

(22 March 2022)

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