Just as the ads promise, there is, indeed, a live chicken in this show. But the chicken turns out to be one of the more mundane elements in this bizarre treatise on the nature of love, which playwright Charles L. Mee refers to as “Plato’s ‘Symposium’ in a gas station.” Plato notwithstanding, the tales of incest, child abuse, auto-eroticism and other extreme acts of sexual perversity recounted by the trailer-park trash who hang out in this garage would get them thrown off “Jerry Springer.”
Despite its compelling nature, the theatrical material is almost upstaged by the extraordinary space in which it is being presented — the gutted interior of a former zipper factory in Manhattan’s garment district. Retrofitted with the detritus of its vintage industrial parts and stocked with old car seats for the most comfortable audience seating in town, the place feels haunted — and probably is. As the first production in this surreal setting, “True Love” fits in seamlessly, its junkyard characters right at home in the grungy abandoned gas station designed by Christine Jones.
Outfitted with a rusty gas pump, mountains of bald tires and a red Dodge Dart that does duty as a sexmobile, this greasepit even smells authentic. There is, as well, a terrific garage band onstage, so the characters can periodically express their pain with achy-breaky songs such as “You’ll Have to Go.”
The place also reeks of the sexual tension of its dramatic story, about the forbidden passion of a 34-year-old woman named Polly for her 13-year-old stepson. In Laurie Williams’ smoldering performance, the luscious Polly seems more disconcerted than appalled by her lusty urges, which makes her inevitable seduction of the boy more trashy than tragic. And yet, tragedy would seem to be what Mee had in mind when he took his plot from Euripides’ “Hippolytus,” filtered it through Racine’s “Phaedra” and eloquently recast it in the raw lyricism of the American vernacular.
Although Polly and her stepson Eddie are the only ones who strip down and act out this crazy thing called love, the other characters in the play talk about it incessantly. Despite the costumes that identify them as a librarian, a hairdresser, a schoolgirl and two garage mechanics, the inhabitants of this rural hellhole function as a Greek chorus, drawing on their own sexual experiences to reassure Polly and Eddie that love is love, in whatever unnatural forms it takes, and is therefore essentially human.
Once he gets started on the various forms of sexual perversity — from the experimental gropings of a 9-year-old girl (“I can’t seem to stop thinking about cutting myself”) to the masochistic rituals of a worn-out wife (“I just needed to be tied up until I learned my place”) — Mee doesn’t let up until everyone has had a chance to spill their secrets, while illustrating new and novel uses for cream pies, cable jumpers and live chickens.
Although, come to think of it, the Jerry Springer crowd might not bat an eyelash at these lurid confessions, more conventional audiences will surely flinch. Nonetheless, director Daniel Fish and a cast of actors so intense they practically vibrate with conviction do a remarkable job of finding individualized voices for Mee’s unorthodox arguments for love as the balm of life. (It isn’t easy, for example, to evoke sympathy for a man who describes in detail the first time he raped his 3-year-old daughter; but in Christopher McCann’s performance, the misery bleeds out of this father’s eyes.)
In the end, though, the personal confessions that come tumbling out of this chorus are so perversely creepy that, instead of helping Polly understand the mysterious — and dangerous — nature of love, they make her reservations about committing incest seem quaintly naive.