Haunting Home Invasions Staged from Below and Beyond

11/16/2010 6:00 AM |

Ghosts in the Cottonwoods
Written and directed by Adam Rapp
Performed by The Amoralists

There Are No More Big Secrets
Written by Heidi Schreck
Directed by Kip Fagan

Stylistically, few domestic dramas could be more different than Adam Rapp's Ghosts in the Cottonwoods, his first full-length play only now having its New York premiere with hotter-than-hot young company The Amoralists (through December 12), and Heidi Schreck's oddly off-beat ghost story There Are No More Big Secrets premiering at Rattlestick (through December 12). Rapp's aggressively stylized, rap-infused story of a single mother and her younger son awaiting the elder sibling's return to their ramshackle shed in the rural South gets an appropriately focused and committed staging from the endlessly energized ensemble at Theatre 80. Schreck's also funny-tragic (though very differently so) story begins with two couples in an apparently idyllic Maryland summer house, but by act two the beautiful wood-paneled retreat has become coffin-like. Both excellent productions find rickety family units being torn further apart.

Dominant female leads are another great shared strength. Previous Amoralists shows tended to privilege the exaggerated antics of male members, often to the detriment of more nuanced and life-sized performances by the women actors. In Cottonwoods, though, Sarah Lemp and Mandy Nicole Moore, as the mother and younger brother's girlfriend, grapple with Rapp's rawest moments, while male cast members James Kautz and Matthew Pilieci fling themselves around the stage with seemingly inexhaustible energy and virtually no words. Lemp's frayed but resilient Bean Scully shares some wonderfully sweet scenes early on with her son Pointer (Nick Lawson) and the first of three strangers to stumble into their architectural quilt of a home, Newt (William Apps). Lawson's stylized, unpredictable performance as the rapping, surprisingly sweet teen gives the mother-son dynamic great depth, so that when they're torn apart the effect is all the more crushing. Rapp brings us into a funny, fragile home on the edge of civilization—indeed, crafted superbly out of its unwanted scraps by artist and set designer Alfred Schatz—and then pulls the floorboards out from under it.

Schreck's story of dissolving marriages is similarly female-driven, especially in the first act when the exotic Russian reporter Nina's (Dagmara Dominczyk) suave intensity plays intriguingly off the bumbling and awkward Maxine (Christina Kirk). Nina and her husband Gabe (Adam Rothenberg) have just left Russia, where she was supposedly in grave danger. They're visiting Maxine and her husband Charles (Gibson Frazier) at their house on the banks of the Delaware, where traces of a former love triangle between the once-close American friends quickly emerge. The dynamic of reminiscences and acquaintances over bottomless shots of vodka creates a convivial mood, one made increasingly manic as talk of witchcraft and Russian torture methods fills every moment between laughs with quiet terror.

The excellent cast and director Kip Fagan balance these sensibilities wonderfully, interspersing moments of fearful anticipation and awkward tension with hilarious relief. The jokes often come at Maxine's embarrassed expense, but Kirk keeps her from Liz Lemon-ish self-parody, torn to raw nerves from all sides—by her cheating husband, her dying mother and vodka-pouring ex. As characters pace the darkened home, going in and out of doorways like Scooby-Doo and Shaggy fleeing from ghosts, Secrets remains delightfully tense and unnerving. In the second act Nina is gone, replaced by her precocious daughter Lana (Nadia Alexander), and the beautiful, broken home (the wonderful work of set designer John McDermott) is doubled over in mourning. Without the odd balance between Kirk's deliberately clumsy comic timing and Dominczyk's commanding presence, the late-going loses some dynamism. But Schreck never gives it all away, and the cast only grows creepily closer to their spectral co-stars.

There's nothing at all friendly about the figurative ghosts in Cottonwoods, though, and as things go from comically sad to gut-wrenchingly brutal, The Amoralists prove that they can do more than mad-cap absurdist comedy—which, to be fair, they do very well. Rapp's never shied from sending his most appealing and complex characters through hell, sometimes leaving them there, and the same goes Bean and Pointer. (The program doesn't credit a fight choreographer, which makes the play's gripping stage violence all the more impressive.) Each show portrays present-day America's unsettled class structure crumbling around a strong female figure, Schreck with her portrayal of a middle-class household imploding, Rapp by tearing a poor white family's shack to pieces. The Amoralist's show has the infectious energy of a major event in New York theater history, like the pairing of a visionary coach and a gifted young team. During one spectacular scene, Bean, Pointer and just-escaped Jeff Scully (Kautz) gulp the thick air thirstily in perfectly synchronized, gasping breaths. Schreck, who scored hits last year with Creature and onstage in Circle Mirror Transformation, demonstrates great sensitivity to disjointed comic rhythms and barely-concealed fright. Both homes, haunted or not, must be visited.

(photo credits: Annie Parisse, Sandra Coudert)