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Theatre in Review: Goodbody (Crook Theater Company/59E59)

Raife Baker and Amanda Sykes. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

What's a lady to do? Marla, the heroine -- if that's the word I want -- of Goodbody cries out, "I just want to know why I'm on a farm with someone who looks like they've been run over by a lawnmower, why I'm hiding cars in hay, and, oh yeah, why the heck I just shot someone in the face!" This pretty much sums up the premise of J.C. Ernst's play: After a bit of romantic violins, followed by violent rock music and a gunshot, the lights come up on a barn interior somewhere in Upstate New York. A young man named Spencer, bloodied and brutally beaten, is tied to a chair. The gun-wielding Marla, having just fired, is staring at the corpse crumpled in a pile upstage. And, as the statement above suggests, she doesn't remember a thing.

How did all three get to this place? Why is one of them dead? Marla has no idea. More bafflingly, Spencer appears to have intimate knowledge of Marla, who insists she has never seen him before. "Sure as shit never dreamed you'd do something like this," he grumbles, in obvious pain. (Among other things, one of his legs is broken and an arm is taped to his chest.) "I didn't!" she insists. "Okay. Sure. It wasn't you," he snaps. "It was the one-armed man." (Even in desperate circumstances -- which is to say, all the time -- the characters in Goodbody usually have a wisecrack at the ready.) To her credit, Marla wonders what she should do first -- call an ambulance? "That depends," Spencer says. "Do you like group showers?" "No," replies Marla. "Then, no. You shouldn't call an ambulance."

The cleverest thing about this thriller, by a first-time playwright with nerve and talent in equal measure, is the fact of Marla's amnesia. Both bellicose and frightened, her confusion allows Spencer to divulge a great deal of exposition -- including the news that he and Marla are sometime lovers -- but, as we quickly come to learn, he may not be all that trustworthy. The complications multiply exponentially with the arrival of Aimes, Spencer's associate -- a tough guy who is both a milquetoast at heart and not terribly well equipped with brains -- and, apparently, Marla's longtime boyfriend. He is also a cop -- a dirty cop, as Spencer bitterly notes -- which leads to his bluntly hilarious exchange:

Spencer: A dirty cop. Which makes you the f--king lowest of low-lifes.

Aimes: F--k you. I put my life on the line every day. Kids look up to me.

Spencer: You work at a desk answering phone calls for licensing and permits. And no kids look up to you.

Aimes: Yes, they do!

Spencer: No kid looks up to the licensing and permit guy at the police station.

Gradually, we learn that all three characters are implicated in a plot that involves a pair of Irish mobster brothers, an illegal poker operation, a major theft intended to fund an illegal drug business, and a massive act of betrayal that threatens to take them all down. And lurking in the background is the nagging question of why Marla can't remember anything. Could it have to do with a beloved childhood friend named Mr. Goodbody?

For most of its running time, Goodbody has the foul mouth, wiseacre ways, and twisty plotting of some of our better crime novelists, plus a little something extra -- think Elmore Leonard with David Mamet's vocabulary, or Carl Hiaasen crossed with Quentin Tarantino. Among its many side amusements are Aimes' penchant for calling Marla "Marble Arch," about which she notes, scaldingly, "That's the worst pet name I've ever heard." And then there's Aimes' youthful indiscretion with a box of Twinkies, which has earned him a nickname I dare not repeat. And don't forget the worrying fact that the supposedly innocent Marla, having run afoul of a vicious gangster during a poker game, cleaned his clock. (She survived only because Spencer carried her off to the restroom, where they promptly made love; anyway, that's his story.)

This highly volatile situation gets kicked up several notches when one of the brothers arrives, full of questions and hopping mad about being pulled away from his Miami honeymoon -- at which point it seems fair to wonder if anyone is going to get out of that barn alive. Under Melissa Firlit's spring-loaded direction, the cast of four keeps us tensely awaiting the next bombshell revelation or brutal act. Amanda Sykes' Marla is the most provocative of the characters: Is she a screwball, a psychopath, an insanely unlucky innocent, or a combination of all three? Raife Baker's Spencer is a canny, calculating sort, even when writhing in agony from his wounds. Alex Morf's Aimes is riotously clueless for someone in his shady line of work; he really shines as Aimes begins to realize, to his horror, that his casual indiscretion has led them all to this godforsaken place. Dustin Charles adds to the tension considerably as the others' employer, a sadist subject to mood swings.

Near the end, however, Goodbody starts to wobble a bit; with all four characters facing off against each other, the plot seems to hit a standstill. In an attempt to take things to another, bloodier level, Ernst shifts the focus back to Marla's amnesia, cueing a showboating act of Grand Guignol violence that hijacks the play without bringing it to a satisfying conclusion. (It plays like something out of a particularly gruesome episode of American Horror Story; it's also a nifty technical achievement, if you can manage to look at it.) The last ten minutes guarantees that Goodbody ends with a bang, but an intricate four-way deadlock, so carefully arrived at, is abandoned for an easy shock moment.

Still, this is a good chance to meet any number of talented young people, including some designers with whom you may not be familiar. Matthew D. McCarren's barn set -- complete with a tiny hayloft -- is as sinister as anyone could wish, and his nicely detailed lighting adds to the atmosphere of impending mayhem. Dan Morrison's costumes are sharply observant, especially Aimes' incongruously natty ensemble. Matt Bittner's original music and sound design -- including some impressive gunplay -- are equally well done. The fight direction by Cliff Williams III is thoroughly convincing.

The theatre is woefully undersupplied with thrillers these days, so it's hard to dismiss one as kicky as Goodbody, even if it runs down toward the end. The Crook Theater Company ensemble is a find; the material may be pure pulp, but everyone plays these malevolent games for keeps. -- David Barbour

(15 October 2018)

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