A flawed script with an enviable surfeit of good ideas, Karl Gajdusek’s San Francisco hipster dramedy “FUBAR” is less a play than a series of theatrical character studies, some very successful. A writer for Showtime’s “Dead Like Me,” Gajdusek has a TV scripter’s flair for snappy dialogue, but he also has a much rarer talent for deep characterization and empathy, even when dealing with his most contemptible characters. Larissa Kokernot’s direction hasn’t quite pulled together a cast of actors with wildly different gifts, but when “FUBAR” works, it really works.
It starts working right away, much like the obsessively balanced cocktail of chemical stimulants that affable drug dealer Richard (Ryan McCarthy, the best and funniest thing in this production) has prepared for himself and old friend David (Jerry Richardson, also good). As the play opens, the two men are earnestly discussing drugs in the context of brain chemistry — it’s a depressingly realistic conversation, as anyone with an upper-middle-class pothead pal will know.
While the two men reconnect, we learn about each one’s partner: David and his better half, Mary (a hardworking Lisa Velten Smith), are in town because Mary’s mother killed herself recently and the house has to be put in order. Sylvia (Stephanie Szostak), Richard’s whatever, is the girl across the room whom David has been loudly fantasizing about.
When David finally joins Mary at home, she’s winding herself into a tighter and tighter knot of grief and anger at her mother and husband, who finds himself enthralled with wealthy S.F.’s culture of shamelessness.
There are a lot of complexities here: David loved Mary’s mother, who stayed with Mary’s abusive dad, so Mary’s contempt for Bay Area free spirits isn’t exactly cold-blooded. On the other hand, these people really do seem stupid. Sylvia is an irritating hippie and God only knows what Richard is doing to himself with combinations like psilocybin, amphetamines and GHB.
It’s easier to understand, then, why Mary storms out on David early in the play after he comes home talking about how thrilled he is at the prospect of another Periodic Table Slammer with Richard. More difficult to understand is the scrape she gets into on a walk around town, during which she’s beaten half to death by a stranger. Gajdusek tries to give Mary some closure near the end of the play, but his solution defies credibility so wildly that it strains suspension of disbelief. More than that, though, it also robs us of genuine empathy for Mary, who is magically healed by the astonishing coincidence.
To Gajdusek’s credit, there’s enough going on here that this slip doesn’t actually ruin “FUBAR,” a modest military acronym of a title that stands for “Fucked-Up Beyond All Recognition” (the full title on the script itself is “FUBAR, or Interesting, Incredible, Amazing, Fantastic”).
The writer is trying hard to make this play about twin San Franciscos — the carefree adult-kid world of David and Sylvia, and the nasty underbelly Mary explores with a boxing trainer named DC (Dan Patrick Brady). But there’s enough play here already, without the artificial brutality. When Gajdusek writes Mary and Sylvia’s final confrontation, he comes across something unexpectedly sweet and fine, and when he forces us to sympathize with Richard, he does the nearly impossible.
The design elements are OK; the boxes full of knickknacks from the life of Mary’s mom could do without the twee labels, but maybe that’s part of the point. Overall, “FUBAR” is a welcome addition to 59E59’s regional showcase “Americas Off Broadway,” though it’s a shame it took the series to bring Gajdusek back to New York — his 2007 outing, “Fair Game,” was as good or better than this.