You might be tempted to call “The Evildoers,” David Adjmi’s anxiety attack of a play receiving its world preem at Yale Rep, “Dinner with Friends — in Hell.” Though the playwright’s work, like Donald Margulies’ 2000 Pulitzer-winner, centers on a quartet of friends going through relationship reappraisals, Adjmi’s play lives in a wilder, angrier and more stylized world, where personal crises speak to a cataclysmic breakdown far beyond the privileged lives of its four characters.
The work gets a big, bold, first-rate staging, fearlessly and fiercely helmed by Rebecca Taichman and performed by an ensemble of actors who seem to be playing on the ledge of their characters’ lives. Production is sure to have future life, even as its brittle humor, heightened style and oblique second half might confound some auds.
Play begins simply enough with the two couples at the end of a long dinner, celebrating the anniversary of 40ish Jerry (Stephen Barker Turner) and Carol (Johanna Day). The ever-solicitous Judy (Samantha Soule) is doing her best to keep things upbeat through Jerry’s drunken spiel and Carol’s nastiness. Judy’s husband Martin (Matt McGrath) is strangely silent throughout, but when Jerry starts babbling about lack of “authenticity” in the world and Carol has snapped one zinger too many, Martin erupts in fury, telling everyone — including his wife — what he really thinks.
Scene shifts to Jerry and Carol’s sleek penthouse loft of glassed-in orchids, over-waxed floors and white neon flourishes, cooly designed by Riccardo Hernandez and lit by Stephen Strawbridge.
After the breakup of his marriage, Martin seeks refuge in the home of his always accommodating, everything-will-be-fine longtime buddy. But Martin’s newly sensitized self and his embrace of the “real” (he’s gay, too, he discovers) unsettles and unravels those around him. As status-conscious, neat-freak perfectionist Carol screams at him late in the play, “Something used to be between us, Martin. Walls. I want them back.”
But by that point in the play their private lives have been de-constructed and destroyed with Biblical proportions.
Adjmi is clearly a writer with a distinct voice, style and ambition. In “The Evildoers” he attempts nothing less than a reality check for the post-Baby Boom generation as it hits middle age — entitled-yet-ambitious, needy-yet-emotionally removed.
The playwright tears down the facade that masks veneer upon veneer with stinging detail, idiosyncratic loopiness and shocking incident. “Whose lives are our lives?” asks Judy as she responds to Jerry’s ramble about the need to connect to each other’s secret suffering. It’s a throwaway existential thought but it’s at the heart and mind of Adjmi’s dogged and wide-ranging pursuit.
But in the telling, the writer bites off more than he can chew — and that’s not just the severed tongue that winds up on the penthouse floor. Hitchcock, Updike, the Old Testament, quantum physics, Margulies and more cram the play as it sometimes careens from point to point.
But even as “The Evildoers” overreaches, the galvanizing cast commands the stage throughout. Day is a force of unsentimental, impenetrable power as the wife held together with steel will and a symbolic anniversary ring. Turner makes manchild Jerry an oddly sympathetic soul as he drifts in his blissful haze of booze and denial. Soule strikes the right note of nervous vulnerability as she transforms Judy from go-along wife to Bride of Frankenstein. And McGrath brings a confused exhilaration to the hyper-feeling Martin, even when he plays a monstrous version of “truth or dare.”