Second Stage is not doing Marisa Wegrzyn any favors. While a full production provides this developing playwright with a crucial chance to see how her voice translates to the stage, the world premiere of her macabre comedy “The Butcher of Baraboo” ignores the quirky signals of Wegrzyn’s writing. Instead, director Judith Ivey forces the play into a conventional arc that puts the acting at war with the script. At best, this outing provides a limited hint of what the playwright may become.
Ivey’s most dubious choices come in the first act. She creates a subdued tone, so that the cast performs in an emotionally flat style suggesting the characters don’t realize how unusual they are. For instance, when local Baraboo, Wisc., butcher Valerie (Debra Jo Rupp) refrigerates a milk jug of blood for her policewoman sister Gail (Welker White) to use in a drunk-driving reenactment, she’s blase about it. She’s equally unaffected as she keeps slamming a meat cleaver into her kitchen’s butcher block.
As the family’s secrets get revealed — most involving Valerie’s 32-year-old slacker daughter, Midge (Ashlie Atkinson), who still lives at home and has dirt on everyone from her missing father to her pregnant aunt Sevenly (Ali Marsh) — no one ratchets his or her performance above restrained emoting. This allows the violent finale to stand out, since it’s the first time the cast lets loose with a torrent of feeling.
And that would be fine if Wegrzyn had written a slow-burn play in which apparent normality gets destroyed by the eruption of the truth. But the writer foregrounds weirdness from the beginning. Cribbing brazenly from Sam Shepard, she loads her language and visuals with grotesque comic metaphors.
That jug of blood, for instance, is just the beginning: Everyone talks about slicing off faces or shooting dogs, and their phrasing is self-consciously stilted. When discussing knives she bought on TV, Sevenly says, “They were so dull and flimsy, I couldn’t believe how dull and flimsy they were.”
The tortuous dialogue — not to mention Wegrzyn’s penchant for short, snappy sentences — invites a loopy energy, telling us these people never need to seem normal. The writing’s potential comic rhythms are noticeable even as they sag beneath the lugubrious pace of the perfs.
Thanks to the discord between words and tone, the entire cast looks awkward. White’s role is especially broad, and she seems the most uncomfortable onstage, unable to make her low-key, ludicrous character anything but wooden.
Policewoman Gail also suffers because she’s a collection of obvious plot devices and strained attempts at subversive humor. (Oh, look! She’s trying to record a suicide note over a Beach Boys mix tape!) But her presence might make more sense if the production’s world allowed for her over-the-top lunacy.
Design elements flirt with both realism and suggestiveness. Beowulf Boritt’s set is a kitchen filled with everyday details, but the walls are made of symbolic butcher paper. Andrea Lauer’s costumes are standard Midwestern fare, but the occasional piece — like one of Sevenly’s high-necked dresses — is blatantly employed to reveal a character’s personality.
In the context of this muddled show, the blending of design statements only adds to the confusion.