Unlike those playwrights who strangle their own plays by trying to direct them, Adam Rapp does a nifty job helming “American Sligo,” his latest attack on the moral values and social conventions that define the American way of life. Fathers who play hero to their sons get it in the neck here, with this cruelly funny treatment of a professional wrestler whose festive dinner before his final match turns ugly under the scornful eye of his son. A terrific cast rips into the contemptuous character studies, serenely ignoring the fact that there’s not a whole lot of content behind the verbiage. In the surreal world of a Rapp rant, that would be entirely beside the point.
Scribe may be glib, but there are no random shots in the verbal fusillade exploded at the dinner table of the Sligo household, where Art “Crazy Train” Sligo (Guy Boyd), a professional wrestler gone hugely to fat, is basking in the awe of Bobby Bibby (Matthew Stadelmann), his biggest fan. Everything said in this room (echoed in the bad-taste accents of John McDermott’s garish set design) screams of family dysfunction.
Bobby, a pathetically naive teenager from Idaho who won a bus ticket to New York and an audience with his idol in a contest, came by his hero worship the old-fashioned way — he bought the lie from television. Although nowadays a blubbery vision in flaming red Spandex and ratty mullet, Art is not about to disabuse the idealistic kid of his fantasy. “I am a fuckin’ national monument!” he boasts. But it’s clear from Stadelmann’s shrewd perf that big-eyed Bobby is in for some serious mental abuse and disillusionment.
Art’s mousy sister-in-law, Aunt Bobbie (Marylouise Burke) is also a believer, or at least an enabler of the fiction that the legendary wrestler is as beloved at home as he is in the ring. Seemingly oblivious to the manly contempt in which she is held by Art and his chip-off-the-old-block younger son, Kyle (underplayed with finesse by Michael Chernus), the dithery dear clucks and chirps and fusses and squawks and flies in and out of the kitchen like a demented chicken. Amazing for its sheer breath control alone, Burke’s daredevil perf is even more admirable for the underlying compassion it shows for this self-effacing woman, who sadly knows she’s superfluous in this barnyard of strutting roosters.
After polishing up the dinner-table dynamics, Rapp shifts to a darker region of satire when Art’s elder son, Victor (Paul Sparks), trips into the house wired on every kind of drug and all kinds of weirdness. In a performance worth studying for the technical control behind its audacity, Sparks stalks the house (eyes peeled for stuff he can sell for coke) with insane manic energy, barely keeping Victor on leash as he snaps out his anger and hurt with a fury as funny as it is scary.
Rapp hits his stride in the razor-cut pieces of dialogue with which Victor humiliates his brother, insults his aunt, terrifies his guest, abuses stray girlfriends, and ruins his father’s big night. But if the savage retribution he brings upon himself feels contrived, it’s because there’s no context for his sadistic rages, outside of a mumbled rebuke of the family for abandoning his dying mother.
Not that anyone wants this scribe to write one of those tired domestic dramas in which the entire family sits around the dining room table digging up family skeletons and airing pent-up grievances. Rapp dispenses with those realistic conventions by creating a surreal version of the American family in which a symbolically weighted image or a single piece of behavior — like Dad’s wrestling gear or Aunt Bobbie’s babbling — functions for the whole character. In that unreal landscape he can cut to the raw emotions seething beneath the civilizing domestic trappings.
But surrealism has to pay off on its own absurdist terms, and Rapp doesn’t much bother here, leaving the audience in the dark about who-why-what-when-where-and-how-come. Nor is he consistent about applying his stylistic shorthand to female characters.
Although both Victor and Kyle kick their girlfriends around like found objects, Lucy (Emily Cass McDonnell) and Cammie (Megan Mostyn-Brown) do not reduce easily to their comic tics. Like Aunt Bobbie, they cling to their humanity in a way that heightens the cruelty of their debasement by the men in this household, whose bad-boy nastiness ultimately seems as much a cliche as the behavior of all those other men in more conventional domestic dramas.