NEW YORK — Don’t expect to see Steve Tesich’s new play, “On the Open Road” move to Broadway, or to read about a seven-figure sale of the film rights to Hollywood, though the author of “Breaking Away” and “Eyewitness” knows a thing or two about screenwriting. No, “On the Open Road”– a bleakly funny, risky, infuriating, manipulative, but always provocative play — is ensconced downtown at the Joseph Papp Public Theater, and that says good things about both Tesich and the Public.
The cynicism embedded in Tesich’s plays is much easier to take in his allegorical works than in the ones that, like his last, “The Speed of Darkness,” attempt a realism that typically translates as bloated, melodramatic insincerity. With “Road,” Tesich goes for broke with a symbol-laden black satire that takes in high art, low comedy and the Second Coming of Christ. Set in an unnamed “place of Civil War,” the play abounds in allusions to Beckett, Brecht and burlesque (though it also includes a shameless reference to the atrocities taking place today in Tesich’s homeland of Bosnia-Herzegovina).
“Road” opens in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, with the much-tattooed Angel (Anthony LaPaglia) standing atop a traffic barricade, head in noose, gag in mouth. He’s approached by Al (Byron Jennings), who is pulling a cart filled with masterpieces pillaged from bombed-out museums. In exchange for his liberation and an education in high culture, Angel agrees to pull the cart to freedom beyond the border.
Like Shaw and Stoppard, Tesich can’t resist imparting his own intellect to all of his characters; when it works, the device becomes part of their charm. Wandering this rubble-strewn landscape like “Waiting for Godot’s” Vladimir and Estragon, Angel and Al strike up a similar master-servant relationship.
Angel is strictly Noo Yawk but he quickly becomes the ardent student, soaking up Al’s knowledge of art and music, ultimately identifying composers and artists with accuracy and concision.
The second act begins with a visual joke and a hilarious “Who’s on First?”-like riff that leads to the play’s dazzling centerpiece. Having been captured, Angel and Al agree to assassinate Jesus (Andy Taylor), who has returned to earth as a cellist. Arriving at the monastery where Jesus is being held and tortured, they are greeted by a monk (Henry Stram) who encourages them to dispatch the prisoner as quickly as possible.
The monk is a shocking creation: In a monologue that cunningly turns in on Tesich himself, the monk compares the Second Coming to being a playwright and thinking you’re doing all right until Shakespeare suddenly reappears on the scene. Jesus “must die for our art to go on,” the monk says coolly, and there’s no question that Tesich regards that “art” as cruelly complicitous in the end of humanity his play describes.
Robert Falls, who staged the premiere of this play last spring at his home roost, the Goodman Theater, goes for the farce but also isn’t afraid of the horrific. The production is one big, grim, Charles Addams leer in the face of death.
It’s a solid presentation, well acted by the four key players, though LaPaglia is a revelation as the brawny, garrulous Angel and Stram is bone-chilling as the monk. The gifted Taylor, who plays Bach’s first Suite for Unaccompanied Cello with heart-melting authority, is the sole holdover from Chicago.
With its complex interweaving of the sounds of war, nature and classical music, this is one show in which the sound designer — John Gromada — more than earns his credit. Lighting designer Kenneth Posner also rates praise for washing the color out of this environment without robbing the characters of theirs.