For all the talk of love and assorted matters of the heart, romantic and clinical, there’s little emotional power in “Rag and Bone,” a fascinating yet ultimately unfulfilling offering by prolific 25-year-old playwright Noah Haidle, who also has upcoming world preems at South Coast Rep and the Roundabout.
Haidle is an engaging writer who creates startling theatrical conceits, intriguing themes and offbeat characters. Sometimes his nonrealistic style is bold and imaginative. Other times it’s pretentious and scattered. In “Rag and Bone,” whose title comes from a Yeats poem, the playwright rummages through a grabbag of ideas, icons and idiosyncrasies to tell a totemic tale of the search for love and all of its mysteries.
The surreal story centers on two brothers and their efforts to reconnect with their dearly departed mum. Jeff (Ian Brennan), sweet and slow-witted, imagines climbing a ladder to heaven for such a reunion. George (Justin Hagan), his protector, finds a more bloody solution by transplanting his mother’s heart (saved in a cooler, along with others) into his own body.
George has lately been trafficking in black-market human hearts, and for the right person — and price — the brothers’ ladder shop becomes a kind of surgical Alice’s Restaurant for the emotionally deprived. Need a heart? Step right this way, but be sure you can cope with the consequences.
The heart of the Poet (David Sims Bishins) is most valued and also difficult to handle. The Customer (Carolyn Baeumler) — many of the characters have labels instead of names — is overwhelmed by her newfound sensitivity and asks for something a bit easier to deal with, say, the heart of a public defender. The Millionaire (Tom Riis Farrell), however, becomes flush with a rapture that’s as good as gold. (“I want to feel the world, not just own it.”)
As for the Poet, whose heart was stolen, he roams the street with a hole in his chest and without a metaphor to his name. A Hooker (Annie Golden) befriends him and her jealous Pimp (Frederick Owens) beats both of them, but with a cartoony kind of violence.
Indeed, Haidle’s wildly unrealistic, naive and symbolic style makes this fable an entertaining — but also a cool and confusing — amalgam of comicbook, fairy tale and theater of the absurd.
It unfolds on G.W. Mercier’s simple set, which strips the stage to its cinderblock walls while accessorizing with the most basic props and scenery (a bathtub, a postcardlike drop for a scene in Bermuda, blood-splattered plastic shower curtains). Candice Donnelly also has fun with the costumes, especially for Golden’s Hooker and Farrell’s Millionaire, wittily dressed like the top-hatted man from the Monopoly game.
Director Tina Landau encourages the perfs to be broad and slightly removed from reality, as if it were all a dream. Golden does well as the aging Hooker and gets to sing “Baby of Mine” from “Dumbo,” a lullaby that’s repeatedly sung for sentiment not entirely earned. Farrell and Sims Bishins also have fun with Haidle’s gawky humor. Brennan stays all too simple and increasingly dull as Jeff. Hagan becomes a sloppy and tiresome drunk when he morphs into Mom. He woozes about the stage in a martini stupor as the play also staggers while seeking a satisfying conclusion.
It finally gets one in a lovely burst of poetry and imagery. But the moment has an artificial heart, not a right and real one.