Something of an anomaly among the gloomy peers in his playwriting tribe, Noah Haidle is an optimistic young scribe whose whimsical plays take comic delight in the most wretched excesses of his fellow man, while holding out hope that mankind can be saved. Although knocking one of his sunny plays is like kicking a puppy, it’s fair game to point out that even a life-affirming specimen like “Rag and Bone” would benefit from nip-and-tuck treatment of the text and a more rigorous directorial approach to its offbeat charms.
Yeats’ poetically suggestive “foul rag and bone shop of the heart” acquires a literal presence in Haidle’s script, which finds brothers George (Michael Chernus) and Jeff (Matthew Stadelmann) tending the family ladder store that serves as a front for George’s illicit trafficking in human hearts. The surreal nature of this enterprise is spelled out in Sam Gold’s free-style helming on the tiny, garishly lit and haphazardly dressed stage — a traffic challenge even for the pro thesps in this dauntless cast of comics.
While Stadelmann’s sweetly oblivious Jeff earnestly sells ladders out front, shady customers in trench coats and dark glasses duck into the back room for quickie organ transplants from Chernus’ drolly phlegmatic George. To underline the differences in their temperaments, Haidle has Jeff naively asking George to help him build a ladder to the gates of heaven, where their recently deceased mother has promised to be waiting.
In heartless older-brother mode, George informs the kid that “heaven doesn’t exist” and that “Mom is dead in the ground.” Tossing salt in that raw wound, he pulls a plump heart from the cooler and lets his brother in on the true nature of the business.
Between that fraternal character clash and the final scene, there’s a whole lot of play. And much of the material that Haidle fills it with is lame or repetitious, even in the hands of this uncommonly clever cast.
There is a plot loosely attached to the play’s metaphysical conceit. It seems bad boy George has stolen the heart of a Poet (an archetype given real humanity in Henry Stram’s sensitive perf) and every customer who comes into his chop-shop is eager to buy it. You would be, too, because “this heart would let you see the world with a profound clarity … and would give you a sense of empathy that borders on the clairvoyant.”
A filthy rich Millionaire (David Wohl) seems to have the edge on the competition. But a Hooker (the irrepressible Deirdre O’Connell) who already has a heart (of gold, naturally) and her world-weary Pimp (Kevin Jackson, as you’ve never seen him before) are the most entertaining claimants to watch, thanks to the thesps’ comic contributions.
While the unseemly hustling for the Poet’s rare heart constitutes what might be considered dramatic action, there really isn’t much point to it all; at least, none that directly affects Jeff’s efforts to transcend this world and relocate to a heavenly home. For all the funny business — and it is funny to watch all the frenzied stabbing and jabbing that takes place on Dane Laffrey’s cluttered set — the play is only as amusing as its individual bits and pieces.