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Theatre in Review: Alligator (New Georges and The Sol Project/ART New York Theatre)

Dakota Granados, Lindsay Rico. Photo: Heather Phelps-Lipton.

I can tell you one thing about Hilary Bettis: She doesn't fool around. At a time when many young playwrights think small -- focusing on autobiographical family portraits or exhaustive examinations of unremarkable relationships -- she gives us Alligator, a full-fledged stab at violent melodrama in the lush, overripe style of late Tennessee Williams. Addictions, destructive sexual games, festering lies, and murder only mark the beginning of what she has in store for unwary audiences. Even more remarkable is how she gets away with it. Alligators have sharp teeth; so does Alligator, the play.

For example, what other playwright would present as her protagonists characters like Ty and Emerald, twin siblings who wrestle the title animals for a living? (The play unfolds in Florida's Everglades in the summer of 1999.) Ty is a master barker, drawing in the rubes with highly colored, if largely true, stories of their orphanhood. (Their parents drove into the swamp one night and were never seen again. As Emerald casually notes, "They found the car, but never found their bodies. Probably got eaten by gators.") Noting the risks that come with their profession, Ty shouts, "There could be buckets of blood! And we'd be piss outta luck 'cause we don't got health insurance!" For all of his skills, however, it seems clear that Emerald, who, he says, can read alligator's minds, is the main attraction, a suspicion confirmed in the savage, commanding movement sequence detailing her wrestling act.

Exhausted by the draining, life-threatening nature of her work, Emerald is a hopeless alcoholic; Ty frantically tries to ration her intake to keep her from slipping into a whiskey fog of no return. Given their appalling family history, they seem irreparably fused, despite the brutal language with which they savage each other and the wrestling matches in which they blow off some of their volcanic anger. They're enough for a play on their own, but this fraught pair is surrounded by a galaxy of wildly troubled characters. Ty and Danny, his best friend, now a college football star, are locked in a relationship so homoerotically charged that they must take bizarre steps to find relief. The gentle Merick, another friend of Ty's, has enlisted in the Marines in a desperate (and unsuccessful) attempt at earning the respect of his father, a tavern keeper; Merick is engaged to Diane, who, at 18, retains an eerily fragile, doll-like appearance and determinedly shrinks from her fiancé's touch. This already-fragile web of friends and lovers is strained to the breaking point by the arrival of Lucy, a 16-year-old, self-identified searcher, who becomes obsessed with Emerald and will do anything -- including pimping herself out -- to keep her new friend permanently soused.

As it happens, Lucy's past -- of which several versions are given -- is pretty sordid, and there is more than one reason -- aside from her status as a minor -- why she shouldn't be sleeping around. Then again, nearly everyone in Alligator is living one sort of lie or another. Ty and Danny go to desperate lengths to maintain their "just-friends" status, until Ty, fed up with the deception, insists they face the truth -- a decision that has violent results. Merick struggles to remake himself in his father's image, an effort that is clearly doomed, and there is a great deal about herself that Diane isn't disclosing. In truth, the only totally honest person is Emerald -- which may explain her addiction to the bottle, reality in these parts being a cruelly wounding state of mind. Then there's Rex, about whom the less said, the better - he is the play's most original surprise -- except that he is both an emissary from the animal world and the personification of the furies that are eating away at everyone in Alligator.

Bettis piles on the sex and violence so relentlessly that the play is constantly in danger of toppling over into self-parody, yet somehow her ugly vision of blighted, almost feral, lives in the Deep South holds. I suspect that this is in no small part due to the disciplined direction of Elena Araoz, who knows how to give this stageful of tormented souls their due. She has also assembled a company of actors who are unafraid to follow their characters down any dark alleys. Lindsay Rico is a stunning presence as the swaggering, remorseless Emerald. ("The meaning of life is to stay as drunk as possible so you can survive until something kills you.") Dakota Granados' Ty is driven to the breaking point by trying to prop up Emerald while simultaneously stripping away the lies that have poisoned his friendship with Danny. Julian Elijah Martinez's Danny looks every inch the hometown hero, until we see the rage lurking just under the surface. Samuel H. Levine's Merick is the most pathetic of sad sacks, clearly unsuited for military life and clinging to the clearly incompatible Lucy (Talene Monahon), overwrought, ulterior, and a little too insistent about her virgin status. "I wish sex never existed; I wish we could just be people together," Lucy says, not the words one wants to hear from one's intended. Lexi Lapp's Diane has a flat affect that may be depression or total lack of moral sense; in any case, she is primed to wreak havoc on this crew. Bobby Moreno is a menacing, devouring presence as Rex.

The production design is as pitiless as anything in the script. Arnulfo Maldonado's set places a curved wall, made of wood slats, around a cistern filled with a few inches of water. The doors upstage open to reveal a trio of musicians -- trumpet, electric guitar, and drums -- who play that harshly insistent original score by Daniel Ocanto, Graham Ulicny, and Sean Smith. Amith Chandrashaker's lighting zooms in and out between full-stage washes and carefully constructed intimate looks. Ari Fulton has assembled the most distressed-looking set of costumes in town, which is as it should be. Pornchanok Kanchanabanca's sound design blends a variety of effects -- a television show, voices in a roadhouse, gunshots, and car engines -- in an evocative manner.

All of this ends badly, indeed -- and yet there's something undeniably exhilarating about the playwright's drive to explore the darkest, most extreme corners of her characters' psyches. She is a writer with a distinct, authentic vision -- but prepare to be burned by it. -- David Barbour


(14 December 2016)

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