Friday, October 12, 2018

97 (2017-2018): Review: GOODBODY (seen October 11, 2018)

“Gangster Guignol”

Begin with a healthy dose of blood, add a rounded teaspoon of sex, sprinkle it with profanity, top it with a layer of gory grand guignol, and mix it with a gaggle of comically hapless, gun-waving gangsters. The result: J.C. Ernst’s Goodbody, a cleverly conceived black comedy in the Quentin Tarantino mode, now being offered by the Crook Theater Company at 59E59 Theaters. 

Raife Baker, Amanda Sykes. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Set and lighting designer Matthew McCarren has given 59E59’s tiny Theater C one of its most substantial-looking sets, an upstate New York barn interior surrounded by the audience on two sides. We see hay bales placed along wood-planked walls, with a ladder to an upper space. There’s also a vertical beam forming an annoying sightline obstruction that the otherwise smart director, Melissa Firlit, could easily resolve with some minor blocking adjustments.

Raife Baker, Amanda Sykes. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The action begins in medias res, so to speak, with the lights coming up on a seemingly dimwitted young woman, Marla (Amanda Sykes), in short black dress and black leather jacket, pointing a pistol toward the corpse—only his legs are visible—of someone she’s just shot. Sitting nearby, suffering from multiple broken bones, is Spencer (Raife Baker), a young man looking, as someone says, like he’s been run over by a lawnmower: one arm is duct-taped to his chest, the fingers of his other hand are also taped, there’s a tourniquet around one leg, and his face and clothing are drenched in blood.
Raife Baker, Amanda Sykes. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Marla, apparently suffering from amnesia, says she has no idea of what she’s done, where she is, how she got here, who Spencer is, or what happened to him. She interrogates Spencer, whose pain-wracked efforts to take control keep failing, about the situation and their relationship. Gradually, the picture becomes clearer. Marla, we learn, is a cocktail waitress (from Gary, Indiana, the script emphasizes for jokey purposes) at high stakes poker games run by a mafia-like Irish family, the O’Learys. Heading it are two dangerously volatile brothers, Burt, whom Marla’s just shot, and Chance (Dustin Charles). Spencer is what might be called the brothers’ nonviolent fixer.
Raife Baker, Alex Morf. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Joining Spencer and Marla midway through is Aimes (Alex Morf), a crooked but hilariously naïve cop, whose desk job with the police allows him to do paperwork that protects the O’Learys. There’s a sharp rivalry between the doofus Aimes and the sarcastic Spencer over Marla, whom Aimes loves but who’s had sex (in a public bathroom) with Spencer. Spencer, by the way, calls Aimes Twinky Twat for reasons that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the movie American Pie.
Alex Morf, Raife Baker. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
All the threatening horseplay we observe is bound up with everyone’s involvement in a heist of the poker takings by Burt, and with the possibility of Chance’s imminent arrival. The situation is even more fraught because of the fear of how Chance will react on learning not only of his brother’s betrayal but of his death. And, indeed, things do get hairy when Chance arrives in the play’s last third and proceeds to torment the others until . . . Well, you may think you know the drill.
Raife Baker. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
For a first-time playwright, Ernst, an actor who cofounded Crook Theater with Raife Baker, who plays Spencer, shows a masterful command of fast and furious, not to mention funny and filthy, dialogue. Some of his bits are belabored and the play could lose a few minutes but he’s definitely on the right track. He captures perfectly Marla’s mix of innocence and something much darker; Spencer’s snappy, knowing arrogance and fear; Aimes’s straight-faced idiocy; and Chance’s malevolent thick-headedness. As the situations evolve, Ernst carefully peels away the skins of the various dramatic onions, exposing layers of lying and deception.
Dustin Charles, Alex Morf. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
On the other hand, the bizarre conclusion, which garners both guffaws and gasps, is surely over the top, but it’s not without sufficient foreshadowing. Whether or not you approve, you’ll probably long remember it. The protocols of reviewing prevent me from saying more other than to note that a bit of mid-play exposition, where the play’s title is mentioned, helps prepare us for what happens.
Raife Baker, Amanda Sykes, Dustin Charles, Alex Morf. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Before seeing Goodbody, I read some of the script, immediately recognizing it as something with strong stage potential if only it were well cast and directed. Reader, it is. Director Firlit has elicited just the kind of humorously realistic tone required. Baker’s Spencer never overdoes being a desperate man in physical agony; Morf actually makes you like Aimes’s being such a jerk; Charles’s Chance has the sound and bearing to convince you he means what he says; and the vocally rich Sykes squeezes Marla for every drop of her twisted psyche. 

Dustin Charles, Amanda Sykes. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

There’s nothing supernatural in Goodbody but its gruesome garishness guarantees it as Halloween-appropriate ( but for mature audiences only).


59E59 Theaters/Theater C
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through November 4