Forty years ago, Pauline Kael lampooned the existential despair of films by Michaelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini and Alain Resnais in her seminal essay “The Come-Dressed-as-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe Parties.” Several American playwrights and filmmakers appear to be in a similar funk with their compatriots these days. Instead of giving us the likes of Delphine Seyrig and Marcello Mastroianni, however, Denis Johnson’s new play, “Shoppers Carried by Escalators into the Flames,” serves up a bunch of zonked-out couch potatoes whose idea of adventure is a Saturday afternoon trip to Walmart. Maybe there really ought to be a moratorium on playwrights who expect theatergoers to spend two hours watching actors watch TV onstage.
Imagine a play by Sam Shepard as if heavily edited by Christopher Durang.
A la Shepard, there is plenty of macho posturing from characters who too grandly remember “the ghosts of the pioneers,” stuck as they are in Ukiah, Calif., with little else to anticipate but the next AA meeting or latenight installment of Jay Leno. Two brothers, Cass (Michael Shannon) and Bro (Adam Trese), have come home to visit Grandma (Betty Miller) and Dad (Will Patton). Bro (aka Luke) is much distraught over the impending marriage of his former wife, Suzanne (Kaili Vernoff), to Gib (Kevin Corrigan), a guy with a real job. Younger daughter Marigold (Gretchen Cleevely) also makes an impromptu visit to the homestead. She seems relatively sane and substance-free due to the fact that her birth must have taken place sometime after her mother ran the family car over the head of a now-deceased sister, Amy, flattening the girl’s 10-month-old skull. Cass and Bro not only witnessed this tragedy, they were next in line for their mother’s act of postpartum rage.
The Durang-like touches come in the way of a sassy TV set (the voice of James Urbaniak), a barking Chihuahua that remains hidden behind sofas and kitchen counters, and a firestorm that threatens to burn up the backstage area late in the second act.
The Shepard and Durang influences aside, Johnson should be given full credit for giving Dad the name Oliver Wendell Homes Cassandra. (Much is made of the Homes/Holmes spellings.) Lines like “The vileness of California, it’s spreading out” and “The rot is not the thing, the rot is in us” also belong solidly in the Johnson corner.
As Marigold, Cleevely isn’t given much to do but look confused, which she pulls off effectively. Patton and Shannon appear stoned in a very understated way. As for the others, their performances possess an overreaching, improvisational quality that is sometimes achieved when actors are asked to perform without a text.
Marsha Ginsberg’s re-creation of a Ukiah home is appropriately spacious and ugly.
Direction is by David Levine.