As displayed in his well-received new tome, “The Name of the World,” as well as in Alison MacLean’s film adaptation of “Jesus’ Son,” novelist/poet Denis Johnson can intrigue with character studies that are at once economical and digressive. The latter quality, however, is over-represented in “Hellhound on My Trail,” his first original theater work. This trilogy of interlocking one-acts rambles far too long for scant tangible reward, its streaks of off-center humor and narrative ambiguity adding up to little more than an attenuated tease. Nevertheless, Campo Santo’s preem production generally makes the most of the script’s spotty virtues, which are distinctive enough to suggest Johnson might yet adapt his authorial voice successfully to the stage.
The three long, Houston-set scenes here present a sequence of two-hander dialogues between strangers whose connection to each other — and to those in the other sections — is revealed just gradually, and incompletely even then. The first, “The Colorado River,” finds smartly dressed Marigold (Alexis Lezin) a nervous wreck as she awaits some sort of interview in a sleek office. She’s confused when Mrs. May (Anne Darragh) arrives, the latter at first behaving so awkwardly that she scarcely seems an authority figure.
But the older woman’s bewildering mix of bureaucratic doubletalk, flirtation and odd confessional remarks (e.g. “Sometimes what I allow to invigorate myself isn’t clean”) eventually reveal themselves as a calculated effort to let Marigold incriminate herself — Mrs. May is a personnel official for the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, and a damaging report has fingered her interviewee as guilty (or at least a handy scapegoat) in some murky field-inspection scandal. Our uncertainty about just who’s yanking whose chain here maintains a certain darkly comic suspense. But as in the later scenes, Johnson’s constant reversals of the power balance grow arbitrary and irksome after a while, while Darragh’s bizarrely mannered, retro-schoolmarmish interp and Lezin’s brusquely modern turn don’t play off one another very well. Aiming for updated Kafkaesque gallows humor, the result seems tonally indecisive.
Performance-wise, at least, second seg, “Head Rolling and Rolling,” is more sharply defined. This time the “stimulated and anxious” party hoping to clear herself is Kate (Delia MacDougall), whom we’ve already learned is/was Marigold’s allegedly harassing, lesbian boss. Uncertain whether she or her absent subordinate is about to be fired, she becomes a flustered motormouth (“I’m just jaggin’ on the java!”) before the insinuating, creepily named Jack Toast (Michael Torres) at an upscale hotel espresso lounge. Variably apprised that this tete-a-tete is an “interview,” “investigation” and “interrogation” — before Mr. Toast giddily boasts his agency is “all about absurdity!” — “lesbian” Kate ends up doing some careerist heavy petting. Both players expertly negotiate their tricky (if again ultimately unsatisfying) exchange, with MacDougall’s frantic maneuverings a particular delight.
After intermission, final and longest scene begins most promisingly as Marigold’s ne’er-do-well brother Mark (Sean San Jose) wakes up in a motel room. Bad enough he has a huge hangover; the worse news is discovering that he’s got a major torso bruise, a gun with one bullet missing, several bags of cocaine or heroin and no recall whatsoever of how these items came his way. The entrance of Salazar (Brian Keith Russell), who at first appears to be the inn’s irate manager (then an FBI agent, right-wing militiaman and/or underworld strongarm), prompts another uneasy verbal tango as burly intruder tries to intimidate a quarry too tired, cynical and bad-luck-dogged to care anymore.
Cutting an archetypal, drugstore-cowboy figure in his skivvies, tattoos and greasy long hair, San Jose ekes considerable mileage out of the scene’s ornery, comic nihilism. But any hope that the evening’s tangled threads might all come together in this last sequence prove vain, and umpteen windy digressions (ranging from raps about the Dead Sea Scrolls to an ill-fated Grand Canyon rafting trip) sap viewer patience. “Bad things happen in a fallen world,” Salazar portentously notes; Biblical allusions are cemented, if hardly clarified, in director Val Hendrickson’s final image of a projected crucifix.
As with some of the author’s fiction, “Hellhound on My Trail” hints at deeper meanings that prove elusive; suspicion grows that it’s all just smoke and mirrors, with no solid ideas lurking behind the invocations of conspiracy, sexual gamesmanship and religion. Johnson excels at raffish humor, wayward character twists, eccentric stories-within-stories. But each segment here digresses to a fault.
“Hellhound” needs cutting and focusing; ultimately all the figures here seem less credible dramatis personae than mouthpieces for sometimes resonant, more often indulgently verbose authorial riffing. The quirky writing style intrigues, but as yet remains too anecdotal and explicatory for the stage — a problem Johnson will hopefully resolve before premiering a sequel (currently titled “Shoppers Carried by Escalators Into Flames”) under the same auspices next year.
S.F.’s ambitious Campo Santo collective (which had earlier co-produced an adaptation of “Jesus’ Son”) deserves credit for developing another idiosyncratic new play, following ones by Erin Cressida Wilson, Naomi Iizuka and others. Though director Hendrickson can’t do much to prevent each scene’s overstaying its welcome, the show is paced and designed smartly, with James Faerron’s sleek paneled set altering to suit the three settings.