As far as I can tell, David Lindsay-Abaire, author of A Devil Inside, has a good education, an effervescent imagination, a lot of smarts, a highly developed comic sense -- and nothing much to say as yet. The play is full of ugly, violent imagery, but none of its deaths and mutilations are to be taken seriously. It's a black farce along the lines of Jules Feiffer's long-ago Little Murders. As Devil opens, Mrs. Slater (McPherson Horle), who runs a laundromat, is informing her son, Gene (Edward Pagac), that his hugely obese father did not die of a heart attack, as he has always thought, but was murdered in the Poconos; for proof, she offers a glass jar containing the father's bloated, severed feet.
"Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder!" she cries.
Well, actually, no, she doesn't. But Devil is so crammed with literary allusion -- mostly Russian -- that I'm sure Lindsay-Abaire had to fight his own creative devils to keep the line out.
A Devil Inside
Bug Theatre, 3654 Navajo Street
Through November 2
From the laundromat, the scene shifts to a subway car in which Gene is attempting to romance a fellow student, Caitlin. But she, alas, is under the spell of their eccentric Russian-literature professor, Carl. We discover that Carl, like Crime and Punishment's Raskolnikov, has persistent fantasies of committing an entirely meaningless murder. Caitlin, who identifies with Anna Karenina, wants to team with him. In pursuit of the murder fantasy, the two of them race through town in a truck and accidentally run down poor Gene, who becomes paralyzed from the waist down.
By this time, we have met Lily -- who brings death to everyone close to her and will soon die herself if she cannot reclaim the tie clip in the shape of a beagle pup that she lost in the Poconos around the same time that Gene's father disappeared -- and dorky Brad, who believes wallpaper devils are signaling to him.
I found myself bored and alienated by the first act of A Devil Inside. Halfway through the second, I realized that the first had been weighted down by the required setup. The rest of the play was much funnier, because you could see the plot and action coming together and savor the payoff to all of those apparently unrelated events, fantasies, absurdist anecdotes and Sam Shepard-like monologues.
But was this enough to make the evening a success? Yes and no. Certainly, it's a pleasure to encounter a mind as playful and inventive as Lindsay-Abaire's, and because he's still very young, he may yet accomplish wonderful things. The play's frenetic action and the turns and twists of its plot are frequently funny, and it's fun trying to identify the cultural and literary references. I'm sure I missed a raft of them, but I did crack up when Gene, apparently dreaming and having miraculously recovered the use of his legs, crept on stage holding a wooden doll to the tinkling music of The Nutcracker's "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy." And while some of the discussion struck me as altogether too cute, other bits -- like Brad's description of the tiny devil trapped behind his eyeball -- were brilliant. As in Fuddy Meers, also by Lindsay-Abaire, there are images that touch on current realities -- references to doughnut-scarfing police, hints of a cataclysm about to destroy New York -- or that seem to carry deeper implications, such as savage dogs, flourished guns, faces hovering at windows, the professor alone in a bar sucking on booze and cigarettes as he attempts to write. But there's also stuff that just seems silly: hairy toes, mincemeat pie, endless references to feet -- severed or sketched. Someday we may be combing these early plays for signs of Lindsay-Abaire's developing genius. Or we may have entirely forgotten them.
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Gary Culig's direction is knowing and humorous, and he complements the action with a variety of odd or creative musical sequences. The theme from The Third Man creeps in at one point (is this a tribute to Graham Greene or to Paula Vogel, who used it in The Baltimore Waltz?), and "Footloose" streams from the speakers as the audience exits the theater.
Heston Gray is a mesmerizing Carl, full of unfocused rage. Both Horle, as Mrs. Slater, and Ashley Vinson as Caitlin struck me as a little too loud and bright, though I did admire Vinson's flouncing, prancing and posing in her red dress. In the much quieter role of Gene, Edward Pagac more than holds his own. Ed McBride is a wonderfully gormless Brad, and his mimed encounters with the devil, including a full-out, rolling-on-the-floor, kicking-and-punching battle, are priceless.
Shortly before I attended the Bug production, I spoke to an acquaintance in Washington, D.C. He said traffic was backed up for miles as police searched for the sniper who had, at that point, killed eight people. Washingtonians were afraid to go for walks, visit malls, go to the movies, gas up their cars. Children weren't allowed to play outside. Place all this against the backdrop of the coming war, and the nightmarish images of A Devil Inside take on a new dimension.