So bloody and yet so kind, “Bad Jazz” is a constant surprise. The play’s ingredients could make a typically cynical black comedy, but instead they are whipped into a buoyant celebration. In Brit playwright Robert Farquhar’s deceptively simple one-act, guts, sex and violence become a bizarre ode to the human search for meaning.
A group of “experimental” artists is putting on a show — one whose filthy words and actual onstage sex are supposed to jolt the audience awake. The artists spout earnest sayings about the power of the theater, and no one thinks it’s silly to discuss the merits of a prop dildo.
But that’s part of the point: The characters are so devoted to making exemplary art that they don’t let anything distract them. Farquhar pushes calamities to ludicrous proportions, but the characters remain touchingly, hilariously undeterred. In this world, bleeding to death is not a good enough reason to miss rehearsal.
As loopy and abused as they are, however, these artists are not idiots.
Farquhar gives the characters dignity, letting them express the needs that draw them to the theater in the first place. In light of this eloquence, the comedy is not about scorning fools who are beneath us, but about cheerily sympathizing with an exaggerated portrait of our own need to be purposeful.
The universality of the quest to make great theater — to turn the chaos of life into a coherent story — is underscored when the characters’ lives begin mirroring the play they’re rehearsing. Farquhar and director Trip Cullman subtly shift between realities, and their restraint lets the play feel smart but not self-conscious.
Cullman also delivers flawless comic pacing. Most scenes have a slow burn, so we can anticipate an explosion but can never quite predict it. And when madness does ensue, it has the precision of a Keystone Cops routine.
For instance, when Ben (Darren Goldstein) bursts in on a rehearsal to stop his girlfriend Natasha (Marin Ireland) from performing a sex scene, he ends up chasing a roomful of sensitive artists. Their screams and falls escalate to a brilliant crescendo: When Ben is sprawled on the ground, defeated and breathless, Natasha’s co-star Danny (Ryan O’Nan) scoots over and kicks his shoe. It’s the last little gag that makes everything funnier.
Cullman is shrewd to make his work so broad, because it keeps the show’s extreme violence from feeling threatening. Since it’s clear no one’s really getting hurt — even when fluids start flying — the play can be about more than shock value.
As usual, Ireland gives an excellent perf. She acts like a raw nerve, rocked by every new thought that sweeps through her character. Impressive newcomer O’Nan matches her commitment to be impulsive. Their scenes together — including a covert love affair — play like spontaneous decisions.
The rest of the ensemble is equally strong, and Ben Stanton’s clever lighting gives their most outlandish moments the shadowy weight of high drama. The characters, of course, would argue that high drama is exactly what we’re seeing.