“Today, we’re gonna say it all,” declares dying patriarch Dandy (Leland Crooke) near the start of David Beaird’s “900 Oneonta,” and boy, he ain’t kidding. A Southern hothouse play to make the neighboring National Theater production of Tennessee Williams’ “Sweet Bird of Youth” seem positively sedate, Chicago dramatist Beaird’s London debut has it all: incest, rape, cancer, miscegenation and enough politically incorrect talk to suggest Beaird can step right in if Rush Limbaugh ever gives up the ghost.
Whether this makes for decent drama is open to debate, although the play’s West End transfer from a sellout fringe run this spring indicates Beaird’s rhetorical overkill clicks on some level with the British.
This American, though, finds the play more than a little fraudulent, and not just because there’s enough bluster about truth-telling to raise suspicions that the dramatist is guilty of the reverse.
While repressed Britons may find the endless sexual jokiness (angina/vagina jokes, and so on) refreshingly blunt, many Americans will be offended — not by the ludicrously self-conscious candor but by Beaird’s spurious attempts at meaning.
“I am America,” wheezes the cancer-plagued, avaricious Tiger (Ben Daniels) late on; the over-the-top theatrics, you see, are a metaphor for a country hyperventilating itself to death. As 900 Oneonta St. — the title refers to the plantation’s address — rots, so does the nation.
As metaphors go, this one is pretty heavy going, and after a while one needs a chart to trace the full decrepitude on view. No sooner has oil millionaire Dandy accused granddaughter Burning Jewel (Elli Garnett) of being a “dry hole” (i.e., barren) than grandson Gitlo (Jon Cryer) emerges nursing a gunshot wound in the rear end inflicted by brother Tiger.
Mother Persia (Susan Tracy) reveals Dandy raped her some 40 years before, but she in turn has been a tad overly maternal to her bare-chested son Tiger.
So it continues for two long acts,of which the second is preferable since the death of Dandy at the first-act curtain spares the audience more of his Ross Perot-ish assertions.
When he’s not trying to impress with his no-holds-barred organ fixation (no primetime TV movie for this play), Beaird — writer/director of the Faye Dunaway film “Scorchers”– can write comedy. A droll ass-kissing ceremony between the brothers sends genuine laughter through the house. So do Gitlo’s one-liners, zingingly delivered by Cryer until he, like the writing, succumbs to excess.
Tim Shortall’s imposing Southern pile of a set gives the characters ample room to roar, and Beaird is nothing if not egalitarian in parcelling out big scenes.
Palace (Sophie Okonedo), Tiger’s pregnant black mistress-turned-wife, comes on late but quickly enters into the spirit, vilifying the family as “a batch of genes done gone wrong.”
There’s barely a moment in “900 Oneonta” that doesn’t look cribbed, no matter how hard the cast tries to make the play its own authentic febrile self. (Daniels and Tracy are the acting standouts.)
The production marks the debut of the laudable West End Producers Alliance, an initiative intended to encourage new writing while keeping ticket prices low.