Darkness Personified

Edmond, currently being staged by the Denver Repertory Theatre Company, is about as nasty a play as I can imagine. When I see something that angers me this much, I usually try to figure out some interpretation I may be missing, something that justifies the enterprise. But for the life of me, I can't do it here. Edmond's philosophical rants are plain dumb -- and not in that brilliant David Mamet way of exploding a character's incomprehension and inarticulacy out into flights of jazzy prose, but thuddingly so. Presumably, Mamet intended the final scenes of the play as a rebuke to Edmond's racism and misogyny, but although the latter gets his comeuppance in a fairly spectacular way, I really couldn't tell whether this was intended as redemptive or simply one more step in his fall.

Unnerved by a visit to a fortune teller, Edmond, played by Frederick Katona, goes home and tells his wife he's leaving her: She bores him physically and spiritually. He then embarks on an odyssey through a murky world of cheap sex and petty criminality. There's a lot of palaver about free will, and a lot of lines like "You are not where you belong" and "Are we bred to do the things we do?" and "What are you looking for?" Edmond's hatred of black people is clearly fueled by a kind of fascination, but that's because he partially buys into all the stereotypes about black people not following the rules. His hatred for women lacks even that level of complexity. The thing is, the character isn't interestingly repulsive. He quibbles endlessly about money. He's blind to what's happening around him. And he's so passive that almost all of his actions are guided by the words of others: the fortune teller, the man in the bar who tells him the three central facets of a man's life are "Pussy. Power. Money." In other words, Edmond is a blind-walking, semi-inert lump who wanders around the stage getting mugged, ripped off and beaten up at every turn, until his nascent self-loathing emerges in a spew of violence and invective. He's so self-pitying that he blames the girl he kills for his own attack on her. "Are you insane?" he yells, wielding his knife.

This 1982 play was revived in London a couple of years ago with Kenneth Branagh in the lead. Maybe Branagh brought a depth of feeling to the part that doesn't seem to exist in the script. It's no help that Katona begins by speaking every line in a deliberately leaden monotone, although he does become more human and interesting in the later scenes. The strongest performance comes from Denver Rep founder David C. Riley, who gives the man at the bar a menacing edge of madness and mesmerizes as the prison chaplain. L. Corwin Christie brings a wide smile and a charming combination of grace and goofiness to two roles: an erotic dancer and the waitress Edmond murders. Anthony C. Harper is interesting as both a preacher and the prisoner who shares Edmond's cell. It's only in the final cell scene, in fact, that we hear a little of the linguistic inventiveness that made Mamet famous, as Edmond and his cellmate speculate about the meaning of life.

The Denver Repertory Theatre Company originally intended to stage Edmond in the black-box theater of the building they're renovating on Market Street, but the place is not yet up to code. Although the tiny 1896 Theatre is a promising venue, it's fairly ramshackle, with primitive now-you-see-the-actors'-faces-now-you-don't lighting. For a set, the company has made ingenious use of wooden blocks, which serve as chairs, tables, a shop counter or a bed. The acting is serious and committed, and director Jake Mechling's musical choices are evocative. But I'm still puzzling over why the Rep decided to produce this play, which does little more than reveal the ugliness of a certain kind of male psyche. Or perhaps of David Mamet's.