Rough-spoken, raunchy and sometimes guffawingly funny, award-winning playwright and novelist Adam Rapp’s “Animals and Plants” is very different from his “Nocturne,” the darkly lyrical, death-haunted play that premiered at American Repertory Theater earlier this season and will soon be seen in New York.
Influenced by Pinter, Mamet and Shepard, Rapp relishes language, but there are gaucheries amid the torrent of glittering, foul-mouthed dialogue. And the play’s setup — a group of characters holing up in a blizzard — is a bit of a cliche, beloved of many a previous playwright.
The central characters are a pair of drug runners, 10-year partners, who are in Boone, N.C., to buy and/or sell 1-1/2 pounds of a psychedelic drug for their boss. They’ve been holed up in their motel room for some days with a blizzard raging outside. Dantly (Will LeBow), the older man, vegetates on the bed, a study in inertia, opting more and more out of life as he shoves the oddest things down the front of his pants, including an ice scraper that injures his penis.
Burris (Benjamin Evett), the younger man, prowls the room ceaselessly in his undershirt and shorts, rampant with nervous energy. A meteorologist (Karen MacDonald) reports on the blizzard on the room’s TV as the two men indulge in endless guy talk to kill time as they wait to receive a phone call from a local contact.
They talk of women, of spraying Right Guard on their balls, of dreams and jock itch, of Dantly losing a tooth and shaving his ass, on and on as Burris admires his torso (inevitably there’s an undercurrent of homoeroticism). Eventually, Burris dresses and goes out into the blizzard to bring back to the motel a young woman the two men met earlier. When Dantly is alone, the bathroom door opens and out comes a tall young man (Scott A. Albert) in his undershorts and an American Indian headdress, bearing a cactus in a pot that he leaves behind as he exits.
Act two opens with the young woman (Frances Chewning), heavy-handedly named Cassandra, watching Dantly sleep. When he wakes she presents him with a carved bear (he’s been having nightmares about bears) and sets out to seduce him. But Dantly is beyond sex, hetero or homo — he thinks of himself as more plant than a human animal. As the blizzard continues to rage outside the room’s picture window, Cassandra reveals to Dantly that the man who appeared out of the bathroom is her husband and that Burris, who paid her $50 to visit Dantly, has abandoned him and is bound for Mexico.
Suddenly, the door bursts open and Burris, bloodied, stumbles in. He’s been attacked by the bear of Dantly’s nightmare. After getting a gun from Dantly, Burris goes out again, shoots the bear and takes off in their car, leaving Dantly completely alone after Cassandra abandons him. The play ends with Dantly naked, cactus in hand, walking out into the blizzard, an apparent suicide. (Rapp says that “in a spiritual sense,” Dantly is “looking to be born again into the world.”)
The play’s existential and philosophical elements have the air of a young writer playing at maturity, yet the sheer liveliness of Rapp’s dialogue and his multifaceted characters do keep his play afloat, even if it really doesn’t go anywhere. It’s best simply to take it as a lurid comedic phantasmagoria of life on the underside of Middle America and leave it at that.
The play has been well cast and directed by Scott Zigler, with LeBow giving Dantly the absolute essence of a mid-life crisis and Evett investing Burris with almost more unchanneled energy than the character can contain. Cassandra has exactly the right bright small-town hopelessness about her.
Looming behind a front scrim of a blown-up Boone postcard, J. Michael Griggs’ motel room is as aptly surreal as the play itself, its walls covered, floor to ceiling, with gaudy murals of American Indians and Daniel Boone.
“Animals and Plants” may not advance Rapp’s cause as a playwright, but it doesn’t diminish it. It’s precisely the sort of early work a writer looks back on with amused affection later in life.