Obie award winning downtown playwright Adam Rapp’s first full length play, Ghosts in the Cottonwoods, which premiered in Chicago 12 years ago, has been reworked as a gritty showcase for the brave downtown theatre company known as The Amoralists. Rapp is a prolific playwright/novelist and a runner up for the Pulitzer Prize for his play Red Light Winter. Together The Amoralists and Rapp make for a combustible evening of theater. Under Rapp’s guidance the actors of this little company have taken on added modulations missing from their earlier one dimensional over wrought style. Here in Rapp’s black comedy about a debauched family the actors are very good indeed without sacrificing their customary intensity.
The Gothic horror story set somewhere in the southern Midwest on the night of a terrible storm is beyond brutal and may set a new standard for gratuitous violence in the theatre. Bean Scully (Sarah Lemp), a single mother and an illiterate agoraphobic, lives in squalor like isolation with her hip-hop obsessed son Pointer (Nick Lawson), a gangly youth who longs to be a rap singer and is given to odd physical gyrations. Their one room shack is held together with spit and glue and tied in place with a noose to keep the house from slipping away during mudslides. Pointer’s room is actually under the kitchen table that stands center stage with curtains to cover the sleeping area for privacy.
On this particular night, mother and son are waiting for Pointer’s older brother, who has broken out of prison after six years. However before he returns, a stranger with a wounded leg will show up and a girl with a suitcase will come looking for him. When Bean’s eldest son, Jeff (James Kautz) finally arrives mayhem breaks out and family secrets will be literally unearthed.
Rapp’s story owes a bit of debt to Sarah Kane’s Blasted and Tarantino’s film Pulp Fiction with its graphic unflinching brutality, which The Amoralists embrace with extremely physical performances that include rampant nudity. The graphically dark tale also contains shades of Ionesco and you can hear Sam Shepard as well.
The play makes a vividly impressive comment on American alienation and the family in decay while leaving a haunting memory by way of the sensationalized violence. Under Rapp’s nimble direction, The Amoralists have never been better, and the story’s symbolism has a sense of playfulness intermingled with an ever present sense of dread. Rapp toys with the audience teasing them with graphic delight for an entertaining look at degradation not for the squeamish or faint of heart.
By Patrick Christiano
Photography: Annie Parisse & Barry Gordin
Ghosts in the Cottonwoods is now playing at Theatre 80, 80 St. Marks Place between First and Second Avenues through Dec 12. For tickets and more information call 212-388-0388 or theamoralists.com