Dan Dietz has created a warped study of a dysfunctional Tennessee family in his dizzyingly complex comedy-fantasy “Tilt Angel.” Once the backwater characters are defined in wordy exposition and the tensions become apparent, the play careens into a doomed nosedive, dotted with awkward comedy. In its New Jersey Repertory Company world premiere, the play is a vicious diatribe with little to redeem it except the perfs of some courageous actors.
Red (Ames Adamson) is a crude, short-tempered laborer with a prosthetic right hand who bullies his mentally challenged son, Ollie (Ian August), and hammers out the dents of wrinkled fenders in a body shop.
Neurotic Ollie, who has a question mark tattooed on his face, is agoraphobic and hasn’t ventured outside his home in a decade or more. He spends his time house-cleaning with obsessive passion. When he does leave home, he’s devoured by a leafy man-eating plant right out of “Little Shop of Horrors.”
Enter the spirit of Lois (Andrea Gallo), the absent wife and mother who left her life in hillbilly hell to seek a more sophisticated existence. Lois eventually loses her life in a plane crash and is subsequently reincarnated as a tree bearing an assortment of veggies.
Add to this sorry lot Reginald Metcalf, who appears from time to time as an African-American emissary from above; he wears a white chauffeur’s uniform and goggles in addition to a pair of wings that appear a little worse for wear. As Angel Bones, he punctuates the banter with a few choruses of unaccompanied symbolic blues.
The play is well served by its valiant cast, which manages to define the sleazier aspects of the grotesque imagery with grimy candor. Director Cailin Heffernan has harnessed the blatant absurdities of the characters and their tilted journey through life.
The set is a maze divided among the body shop; the dingy family cabin, with its spongy walls constructed of jigsaw puzzle pieces; and a yawning, leafy underworld plant that doesn’t swallow the cast members early enough.