In “River,” Rabe returns to Phil (Paul Guilfoyle), a loser who died a suicide in “Hurlyburly” and one of the sorrier members of that play’s fraternity of Hollywood fringe grunge. This play is set several years before “Hurlyburly,” with Phil, a former mob goon, having moved to the Coast after serving eight years in prison for his part in a particularly brutal hit. (The play’s title refers to bodies that must be slit open in order to sink to the river bed and stay there.)
In Hollywood, he plays bit parts as a heavy — that is, he ekes out a living pretending to be what he in fact is, or was — while struggling to make a new life with his wife, Susie (Sciorra). She has taken to diapering her teddy bear, signifying both how much she wants a baby and what a baby she still is. He’s wisely reluctant, pointing out that he already has three children of whose whereabouts and fortunes he is completely innocent.
Phil and Susie have a major Stanley/Stella thing: For all the self-improvement posturing, he’s still a brutish drunk capable of knocking her around when she gets on his nerves, which is often enough, though more often they end up doing the hot-and-heavy on the sofa, the rug, sometimes even in the bedroom.
Phil is visited by a sinister reminder of his past in the form of Sal (Jude Ciccolella), his partner in goonery. The two men do a wary dance — has Sal come to kill Phil or save him from the “mook’s” life? — that ends with them actually dancing.
Susie, meanwhile, finds temporary refuge with Janice (Phyllis Lyons), who’s every bit as tacky as Susie but a couple of rungs higher on the L.A. food chain.
The fact that all four are numbingly inarticulate doesn’t prevent them from endless monologues; as Susie puts it in a rare moment of concision, “Just because you don’t make sense, Phil, doesn’t mean you’re philosophical.” Yeah, tell that to David Rabe.
Yet it’s also true that, like David Mamet (his stylistic opposite), Rabe hears poetry in the stuttering attempts of ordinary people trying to connect. Moreover, he’s clear-eyed about the commonplace brutalities, humiliations and reconciliations that are the stuff of life where love is “like a couple of starving rats in the garbage — two people looking for it, neither one of ’em got it” and “everybody’s empty, that’s the way the world is today.”
Given the prospects, Susie’s return to Phil is no case of love triumphing over all — any more than Stella’s with Stanley was in “Streetcar.” Worse, Rabe hasn’t provided a Blanche Dubois to lift this miserable story into a higher realm, and it’s unlikely that any amount of editing would have changed its essential hopelessness. But someone ought to have tried to rein this play in.
The handsome production (special kudos to Peter Kaczorowski’s beautiful, ever-changing lighting) unfolds with thudding obviousness, that dance being the sole grace note. Anyone whose memory still resonates with Harvey Keitel’s electrifying Phil 10 years ago in “Hurlyburly” is likely to find Guilfoyle charm-free, while Sciorra does too much acting with her hair and limbs, all constantly aflutter. She’s also, predictably, a new addition to Rabe’s standard female iconography: a rag doll with an attitude and plenty of exposed bruised flesh to show for it. For their parts, Ciccolella and Lyons never rise above type.
It isn’t just the characters who seem unable break out of their molds by the end of “Those the River Keeps.” It’s their creator, too.