“Why are you smirkin’?” “I must be amused.” Smirkin’ is the main response to “Ridiculous Fraud,” Beth Henley’s big ol’ slab of pecan pie. Gooey with Louisiana accents, dripping with Spanish moss and Southern eccentricity, this intermittently entertaining new comedy spends a long while getting going only to quickly fizzle out.
There are more crimes of the heart here than anybody can keep track of — infidelities, rages, kind lies, vicious truth-tellings — and the motivation for anybody doing anything is hardly ever clear, to them or to us. Ducks are gutted, arms are stabbed with arrows, faces are cut, wounds are bound with duct tape, bugs are served on crackers and crawfish shot out of something called a potato cannon.
Cataloging the family’s dysfunctionality seems to be the play’s point, but the characters’ helpless, often funny misery misses the Chekhovian objective by a mile. Remarkably, Henley has not repeated any of the immense list of woes she invented for her Pulitzer-winning “Crimes of the Heart” 25 years ago. But where those three sisters eventually were reunited, the three brothers of “Ridiculous Fraud” wind up estranged — a decidedly noncomic dramatic direction.
The brothers make a shambles of their family life, which is already in disarray: Their dead mama was “mad as a hatter” but a great dancer; their daddy, “a chronic charmer,” is in prison for fraud; and the feckless youngest brother, self-named Lafcad (Daniel London), decides on the eve of his wedding that he hates his bride, the fault of his “marital genes.”
Andrew (the superb Reg Rogers), the unstoppably loquacious oldest brother and the play’s center, aspires to restore the family’s reputation by running for state auditor, but he has shady financial debts to his rich wife (Ali Marsh). She, in turn, hates her new cancer-stricken stepmother, Maude (Barbara Garrick), who may be a nurse or a piano tuner.
The middle brother, Kap (Tim DeKay), is “squanderin’ his prodigious potential” by doing nothing but hunting ducks, while old uncle Baites (Charles Haid) has just picked up a girl with a wooden leg at the train station.
Haid is especially appealing as Baites, portly, sweet-natured and unforgiving when Andrew tells him that Georgia, his lost girl, is nearly 30 and has abandoned her five children.
When Georgia (Heather Goldenhersh stepped into the role less than a week before opening) returns in the last scene as a silver angel who works as a street mime, her five children are apparently again forgotten and all is forgiven. (What happened to her wooden leg?) A dance scene between her and Lafcad makes no narrative or emotional sense, and concludes the play on a baffling note.
The four scenic designs by Michael Yeargan are spectacular: a summertime storm in the Garden District, an autumn day in the woods, winter in a rustic hunting cabin, Easter in a New Orleans cemetery. The musical transitions between the four acts (there are two pauses and one intermission) of New Orleans jazz make for great listening but seem to have little to do with the mood of the show.
The program announces the time as “five years before Hurricane Katrina,” reminding us that New Orleans can no longer be easily evoked as the richly atmospheric place it always was.