How does this happen? Writer-director Tony Georges’ stab at Southern Gothic, “Tricks the Devil Taught Me,” is one of those mysteriously well-funded, doomed contradictions that show up in expensive Off Broadway rental houses a few times each season, practically radiating unearned confidence. It’s hard not to feel sorry for everybody involved — especially hardworking actors including Beth Grant and the inimitable Mary Testa — in this badly misguided play set generally in the South, probably the part of the South that Foghorn Leghorn is from. (The play’s website claims “the fiery confines of West Texas.”)
Grant plays Betty, a beleagured housewife whose good-for-nothing son Jeremy (T.J. Linnard) and good-for-even-less husband Don (Peter Bradbury) are plotting to rob her and go on the lam together, leaving Jeremy’s infant son and unwell wife behind. It’s almost cruel to point out the plot holes, but here goes: Why doesn’t anyone in this play have a bank account? How did Don convince Jeremy to betray his mother, wife and child in so spectacular a fashion? Why does Betty’s sad-sack friend Lorraine (poor Jodie Lynne McClintock, whose character is mostly there to get teased about her weight) sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic?” Irrespective of age and gender, everyone curses like a 14-year-old boy.
Tech aspects look pricey but are thrown together with roughly the same level of expertise as the script, especially Eli Kaplan-Wildmann’s set. There’s a stuffed cougar — a whole one, not just the head — mounted on one wall. One of the characters notices it, once. Dangling from the grid, there’s a huge pair of headlights that must have cost a small fortune to construct and mount for a one-off, entirely unneccessary effect. But the house, where most of the action of the play takes place, is built of stud walls and undecorated flats at eye-gougingly wrong angles to each other.
The high point of the show is Testa, who plays a character epitomizing a lifelong New Yorker’s vague idea of what a Texas church lady must act like. (Georges has no excuse for this, having lived in Odessa, Texas himself.) The caricature is broad, but it’s effective and Testa doesn’t quite have the look in her eyes of pained desperation shared by so many of the cast.
At the perf reviewed, a quiet argument broke out a few rows back during intermission. “Let’s go,” demanded one woman. “No,” said her friend. “If we leave now, we’ll never know what’s going on.”