TV Guile

Playwright David Rabe savages Hollywood--particularly the Hollywood of television production--in his caustic Hurly Burly. And he doesn't bother with the most visible life forms--stars, directors and writers. Instead he goes for the bottom-feeders, the little guys in the casting office who live off of mother Tube and feed off of each other. This is a brilliant play, full of sound and fury and signifying the depths of depravity into which so many have fallen. And a new local troupe of angry young men and women, the HorseChart Theatre Company, trots out every nuance of madness in Rabe's dark vision. It may not be the kind of production even Rabe himself would have expected, but it sets this company off at a good gallop.

The minimal story line concerns a pack of TV casting directors, one lone actor and the women they know. Mickey, a self-possessed cynic, rooms with the tormented Eddie, who actually suffers rare moments of self-knowledge. Phil is Eddie's best friend, a violent ex-con turned actor who is so wrapped up in mindless anger that he can't stop battering his wife or his girlfriends--along with anybody else who ticks him off. Then there's Artie, an irritating jerk who actually fancies himself superior to the other boys. His condescending attitude turns out to be a cover for his weakness, not to mention his heartlessness.

But then, heartlessness afflicts all of these guys. Cocaine-sodden and utterly self-deceived, they care about little but easy gratification. Of course, instant gratification being what it is, none of them is satisfied, and all of their dissatisfactions center on women. Artie, for instance, stops in at one point to drop off the user-friendly Donna, a teenager who sleeps with anyone willing to give her shelter. Donna is so childlike that she sees through everyone around her--but always as a dreamer.

Newcomer Tina Jones nails the guilelessness of this lost soul in a sweet, sad performance that makes the male characters appear even more predatory. For Artie, Donna is a "care package" for his buddies--a bribe meant to score points for their respect, which, of course, is not forthcoming.

These men talk without saying much, use and abuse women without caring much, and anesthetize themselves from the horror of their lives without noticing much. Meanwhile, they somehow manage to go on making a living. They are not stupid, so they do know that television is mostly waste product. They are not quite criminal, so when they share a particularly egregious memory of having terrified a six-year-old child with a sick fairy tale, Eddie can at least say with self-loathing, "Everywhere I turn, I am confronted by my own depravity."

Brett Aune delivers a mature, layered performance that makes Eddie a sophisticated solipsist. When Eddie confronts his immorality for a split second and realizes that "we have emptied the heavens"--and therefore the earth--of meaning, Aune is chilling as he spits out the central moral of the play. Matt Saunders builds rage from the center out in the sociopathic Phil, making him believably disturbed; the only problem is that it's hard to gauge from this performance why Eddie loves him.

Scott Blackburn gives Mickey a languid grace that barely disguises his devastating corruption, Philip A. Russell's Artie is appropriately pathetic and nasty by turns, and the women in the production are terrific--particularly Catherine di Bella as a girl-toy named Darlene and Shannon Woolley as a fast-talking druggie who gets thrown out of a moving car by one of the boys. Both actresses balance world-weariness with feminine vulnerability and even gentleness.

Rabe's scathing revelation of a mindset in which human beings abandon their humanity is as fierce as any morality play in the American theater. He understands Hollywood the way Sam Shepard and David Mamet understand it. And like those playwrights, Rabe's language is poetic at times and as sharp as diamonds.

The play is usually done at break-neck speed, theater-of-the-absurd style. But HorseChart has chosen a whole other approach, more like the painstaking realism of Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni than the frenetic plays of Frenchman Eugene Ionesco. It's not necessarily a better approach, but it does bring out different qualities in the text. Instead of grasping the play as a single whirlwind--the "hurly-burly" described by the witches in Macbeth--director Stephen Cosgrove sees it as a drama of minute tensions. It takes a long time to get to the story's sorry end, but it's time well-spent.

Hurly Burly, through May 3 at the Acoma Civic Center, 1080 Acoma Street, 458-0755.

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