In the ever-accelerating revival cycle, the hipster opinionistas already have decreed that 1980s redux has given way to ’90s nostalgia. But Off Broadway, the New Group is revisiting that soulless earlier decade with its vigorous staging of “Hurlyburly,” the 1984 David Rabe play that’s become emblematic of the self-absorbed, self-serving, self-delusional, self-loathing behavior of the much-denigrated era and of the aching need for real human contact it masked. Director Scott Elliott and the committed cast wrestle the text’s coked-up verbal ferocity into as sturdy a production as one might have hoped for but don’t show why this taxing play merits new attention.
Ever since its articulate bile was first heard in Mike Nichols’ premiere production, Rabe’s play has attracted the kind of actors most legit companies only dream about. (Original cast featured William Hurt, Judith Ivey, Harvey Keitel, Cynthia Nixon, Jerry Stiller, Christopher Walken and Sigourney Weaver.) A violent stream of monologues and spiky exchanges delivered by morally repugnant men and by brutally objectified women with no use for dignity, “Hurlyburly” also is a favorite source of audition pieces. Even more than the staccato language of David Mamet, to whom Rabe’s work often is compared, the play’s unremitting hard edges can serve as occasion for the self-indulgent posturing of actors.
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It’s to Elliott and the cast’s credit here, then, that this production is as disciplined as it is. But while there was a discomforting point when Rabe first held up a mirror in the mid-’80s to the emptiness and moral ugliness of the era, countless films and plays have been there since to diminish the acrid comedy’s raison d’etre.
Dated as it is, there are still any number of passages in which Rabe’s writing bristles with toxic rage and his savage humor supplies a jolting current. But this three-hour-plus visit into the sordid lives of some deeply unpleasant Hollywood Hills residents yields few fresh insights.
Bluntly greeting the arriving audience with a generous expanse of exposed butt as he lies sprawled and comatose across the couch with his boxers at half-mast, Ethan Hawke plays dedicated substance-abuser Eddie. He shares the apartment with fellow casting agent Mickey (Josh Hamilton), who has caused minor friction by also sharing Eddie’s girlfriend, fashion photographer Darlene (Parker Posey). But in these guys’ jaded world, women are a commodity to be traded with apparent indifference.
The third fixture in the apartment is Phil (Bobby Cannavale), a hot-tempered, lunkhead actor whose wife wants him out. The household expands further when the guys’ producer buddy Artie (Wallace Shawn) brings over a “care package” in the form of trashy Midwestern waif Donna (Halley Wegryn Gross), who’s not averse to being passed around.
As the booze, coke, dope and venom flow freely, Eddie’s motives for keeping Phil around are called into question: “This investment is based on the fact that Phil is very safe, because no matter how far you manage to fall, Phil will be lower.” Nonetheless, Eddie attempts to ease his troubled friend’s pain by providing a pleasure vehicle in topless dancer Bonnie (Catherine Kellner), who gets tossed from a moving car by Phil in a moment of pique. Fact that all three of the women are Dumpsters with minimal self-respect is more than a little wearing.
Much as the rhythmic talk gives off sparks with its callous wit and nimble intelligence, the play often seems as rudderless as Eddie, who’s “testing the perimeters of the American Dream of oblivion.” His rants about the political and social ills of the world, and his own emotional hollowness, lack the weight of real conviction, despite Hawke’s measured doses of anger, ennui and vulnerability. Hung on such a self-annihilated shell of a man, Eddie’s existential angst somehow doesn’t seem enough to drive this punishing marathon. The display of tenderness in his final scene (which follows a timely, unintentionally sour tribute to Johnny Carson) is too little and too late to make us care about him.
Solid as Hawke is in the central role, he’s slightly outshone by his two male co-stars. A quietly charismatic actor, Hamilton makes it all look easy despite the inordinate amount of business he’s given — mending a shirt, flossing, making coffee, eating ice cream — to underline emotionless Mickey’s cold removal from the people in his orbit, whom he regards as pathetic frauds. Asked by Eddie to describe their friendship during a heated exchange, Mickey replies: “Adequate.”
Cannavale delivers the play’s closest approximation of pathos in his funny, volatile perf. At times, his cleverness seems out of character: “Watch the fine line you are walking between my self-awareness and my habitual trend to violence.” But Cannavale makes bewildered Phil, despite his brutality, the only character whose anguish is palpable and transparent. His monologue on Phil’s employment of a vibrator as a mood-setting seduction tool provides a liberating burst of hilarity amid the generally cooler humor.
Badly miscast, Shawn is far too benign a presence to be convincing as sleazebag Artie, coming across like a Teletubby in a Brillo Pad wig, play-acting at being nasty.
Of the women, Kellner fares best, bringing dimension and even a little heart to druggy Bonnie. Posey’s self-conscious deadpan steers her scenes toward sitcom, while Wegryn Gross’ flat characterization makes Donna an unintriguing blank.
Jeff Mahshie’s costumes run to period overstatement and obviousness: Darlene’s Pat Benatar-style chic; Donna’s tartlet uniform of cutoffs and skimpy shirt; Mickey’s slick groover-dude threads. Derek McLane’s set is more subtle, the split-level expanse of the aptly nondescript apartment well utilized by Elliott, who keeps the verbiage-heavy action as physical as possible.