By: David Sheward
Beth Henley has always had a dark side. Even her sunniest comedy, the breakthrough Pulitzer Prize winner Crimes of the Heart, is shadowed by death and destruction. Thirty years after the Broadway premiere of that kooky tale of three eccentric Southern sisters, Henley has a much gorier tale of a bipolar dentist and his equally wacko wife. Set in 1964 Mississippi, The Jacksonian, playing Off-Broadway in a New Group production after an earlier staging at Los Angeles’s Geffen Playhouse, has plenty of killing, pedophilia, racism, and blood to go around, but it all seems gratuitous.
Tooth doctor Bill Perch resides at the titular motel during a trial separation from his depressed spouse, Susan, who blames him for consenting to a hysterectomy for her while she was under the ether. Their acne-scarred, teenage daughter Rosy is just as gloomy during her visits. The motel staff doesn’t prove any more cheerful. Fred, the bizarre barman, is attempting to escape a murder rap and the clutches of the bubble-headed, bigoted chambermaid Eva.
The play opens with Rosy, wrapped in a blanket and sobbing to the audience about surviving a Christmastime accident. From there, we flashback to May when this dysfunctional family’s downhill slide started. As if we are in Rosy’s confused head, we move back and forth in time as Bill loses his practice, Susan loses her mind, and Rosy loses her innocence. Suffice it to say, it doesn’t end well.
Henley has gripping themes going concerning her Southern roots: The dentist’s offstage father appears to be a klansman, and there are many references to lynchings and African-American churches being fire-bombed. There are also heaping helpings of the playwright’s trademark black humor, but the characters aren’t sufficiently developed beyond their surface quirks.
Director Robert Falls keeps the grotesqueries from overwhelming the story while the powerhouse five-person cast largely tries for a similar balance. Ed Harris is truly dangerous as the deranged dentist, particularly in a blowup scene where the doctor is down on himself while high on nitrous oxide. Bill Pullman takes a fascinating flight from his usual nice-guy roles as the tightly wound, perverted Fred. Even his hair is scary. Amy Madigan tries her best to make more of Susan than a shrill shrew, but she isn’t given enough with which to work. Glenne Headley has a few striking, off-kilter moments as the daffy Eva. Juliet Brett plays every Southern stereotype as the misfit Rosy, as if she were enacting literary images from Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty, rather than being a real person. Unfortunately, that’s only as deep the play goes.
Nov. 7-Dec. 22. The New Group at the Acorn Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St., NYC. Mon-Tue 7pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 90 minutes, no intermission. $75. (212) 244-3380. www.telecharge.com
Originally Published on November 7, 2013 in ArtsinNY.com
Photography: Monique Carboni