A terrific presentation of an uneven play, Jessica Kubzansky’s canny direction, a skillful cast and a viscerally expressive production design combine to make Mickey Birnbaum’s “Bleed Rail” shine as much as possible. The show works as a dark comedy, and the first act is full of off-kilter wit and well-drawn characters. Second act, however, awkwardly lurches into portentously symbolic drama, shoehorns in the Iraq war and becomes tedious.
Ryan (Dennis Flanagan) is happy enough with his job at the slaughterhouse, cutting open cows brought to him on a mechanized circuit of hooks, talking about cars over the booming din with his co-worker Justin (Josh Clark) all the while. He shares a place with his friend Keith (Cyrus Alexander), who works at a local fast-food joint, and has tentatively started a relationship with the young, homeless and pregnant Jewel (Lily Holleman). His life changes when a workplace accident temporarily disables him. No longer seen as an able-bodied worker, Ryan finds his entire reality changing for the worse.
Ryan is mostly reactive in this story and, as a result, is more vaguely conceived than the other roles. Flanagan mostly makes the audience forget this through an assured and sympathetic perf, but by the conclusion, Ryan’s status as an Everyman figure overshadows the subtleties of Flanagan’s acting.
Clark brings a peppery vigor to Justin, and Alexander is wryly amusing as Keith, a guy to whom a 62″ TV constitutes a reason to live. Holleman is superb as Jewel, both hilarious and touching. Finally, Hugo Armstrong offers in a tour de force perf as the crazed Jim the Hanger, mixing bellowing bellicosity with moments of graceful delicacy.
Birnbaum is clearly a talented writer, and his scenes in the fast-food restaurant, a tinny Muzak version of “God Bless America” tootling in the background, nicely capture the surreal nature of such places. Kubzansky brings some clever touches to the production, from having the actors walk the perimeter of the stage as if they themselves were cattle moving inevitably through the slaughterhouse to the shadow of a giant gear projected on the center of the stage, always turning, always grinding.
Susan Gratch’s striking set — a bloodstained floor and backdrop, with a ring of hooks, the titular “bleed rail” hanging above the stage — looms with ominous authority. John Zalewski’s sound design, alternately bruising and muted, adds to the potency of the piece.