Your roommate is wearing a hazmat suit, there may be anthrax in the fridge, and the Muslim who runs the 99 Cent Store is bound and gagged in the closet. It’s not the perfect time for a marriage proposal, but in a post-9/11 environment, people do the craziest things. Such paranoia and panic are the subjects of “Crazy Eyes.” The comedy-drama by John Buffalo Mailer, son of Norman Mailer, is having its American preem in a new summer theater on the family’s home turf of Cape Cod.
While in his second play the 27-year-old Mailer shows an eagerness to tackle serious social and political themes, this is more a messy sophomore effort than one ready for the big leagues. Scribe is attracted to the tipping points that push presumably sane, ordinary people to become involved in acts of madness in the name of heroism. But to go on Mailer’s wild ride one has to find credibility, not to mention interest, in the characters and their actions, and those factors are not in evidence here.
Story is set in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn in the weeks following 9/11. Will (PJ Sosko) is a Wall Street day trader, but you’d never know it from his macho posturing, redneck jingoisms and the gun under his belt. Apparently, the trauma of witnessing the aftermath of the Twin Towers attack has made him snap big-time, but his insanity seems undetected by those around him. That includes his roommate Jack (Dana Watkins), a struggling actor who, based on being cast in an Off Broadway show, decides he is going to ask his Canadian AIDS-researcher girlfriend Lisa (Eve Kagan) to marry him.
But a romantic dinner is deferred when Jack discovers a bloodied and bound Palestinian man (Gian-Murray Gianino) in their closet. Will, it seems, saw two Middle Eastern-looking men exchange a package filled with white powder, assumed there was another terrorist plot involving a deadly substance, killed one of them and took the other home “in a citizen’s arrest.”
Much of the first act deals with Jack’s stunned reaction to what his friend has done and the farcical goings-on as the two men try to keep Lisa from discovering the man in the closet. But the production doesn’t succeed with Mailer’s mix of loopy slapstick humor with such a serious and sad situation, in which one man has died and the other is bound and bleeding. The work also doesn’t get much help from overwrought direction and perfs that are alternately extreme or hollow.
Sosko’s aggressive take is out of whack for a man who is supposed to be a Wall Street professional (even a severely damaged one). He looks ready to be institutionalized from the start. Watkins and Kagan wander about searching for some deeper character they never find. Only Gianino brings a focus and power to the stage, and he gets to speak only at the end of the play, when the sitcom style turns serious and the plot takes its final twist.
“Crazy Eyes” suffers most not from a lack of ideas but a lack of cohesion and craft. The initial crime seems far-fetched. Terrified Jack does nothing to stop his roommate because of some long-ago loyalty when Will saved him from being hit by a car. No one makes a serious effort to flee this obvious madman with a gun. The sexual dynamic among the characters goes unexplored; issues of AIDS, being a Canadian and Jewish identity are briefly tossed about but never picked up again.
“What does it mean to be an American?” Will asks repeatedly, as if to strike a thematic note to the play. But in reality, the line that best sums up this dazed and confused work comes toward the anticlimactic end when a character asks, as if considering it for the first time, “So what do we do now?”