‘Savage in Limbo’ a knockout at MetroStage

September 23, 2011

John Patrick Shanley is best known these days for writing “Doubt,” the drama about pedophilia that a zealous nun thinks she’s discovered in a Catholic school. Pretty sober play.

Long before that, though, Shanley was renowned for the streetwise delirium of the Cher-Nicholas Cage movie “Moonstruck.” The 1985 “Savage in Limbo” is Shanley in his “Moonstruck” mode — tart-tongued and deeply funny, and so drunk on words that your jaw may drop in wonder as characters tear into intensely soulful, profoundly goofy arias.

It’s all or nothing with this brand of swoony excess, and in the spare but gloriously acted show at MetroStage the cast goes for broke, performing in broad New Yawk-ese and laying bare Shanley’s loquacious romantics. The crazy story-of-my-life speeches are spellbinders, and each deadpan punch line hits the mark.

“Savage” is a wonderful play for actors, and director Lise Bruneau — a more than capable performer herself — has assembled a cast that revels in Shanley’s acid wit and high passion. Most arresting is the raw turn by Veronica del Cerro as Linda Rotunda, the 32-year-old sexpot whose beau has just told her he, um, needs to start seeing ugly women.

Del Cerro’s swivel-hipped, pugnacious Rotunda is thrown for a loop, naturally. (The actress is dead-on with Rotunda’s blend of come-hither and back-off.) So Rotunda goes bawling into the local bar, where everyone is 32 and panicking that it’s all downhill from there.

Rotunda’s hyper-articulate foil is Denise Savage, whose problem — literal and metaphorical — is that she’s a virgin. Lolling at the bar is a soused gal named April White, who fights off depression with a steady stream of drinks supplied by the no-nonsense bartender, Murk. When Tony, Rotunda’s man candy, ambles in, Shanley has his quintet, with each member crooning the blues about loving and living.

The harmonizing in this comedy, which Shanley dubbed “a concert play,” is marvelous. Del Cerro provides a ton of heat, but she’s counterbalanced by Natascia Diaz’s gritty logic as Savage (whose existential crisis is the play’s biggest, but not by much — it’s an unusually balanced story). Jenna Sokolowski is like a talking champagne bubble as April, popping up now and then with something endearingly sweet and fragile, then slumping back over the bar.

The men measure up to these exceptionally vibrant women. The tall, lean Michael Kevin Darnall is delightfully wolfish as Tony, and Sasha Olinick masters the dry one-liner as Murk, who casts a wary eye at the verbal jostling going on in his bar.

About that bar: Bruneau and designer Robbie Hayes push the “Limbo” idea, with the set almost spookily empty and Brian S. Allard’s lights dimmed to suggest a slightly otherworldly state. It’s a gamble; the murk could dampen the fiery play’s spirits. But they get it right, and the characters blaze. Shanley threw haymakers in his earlier days as a playwright, and Bruneau and company swing as hard. Their “Savage” is a knockout.

Pressley is a freelance writer.

Savage in Limbo

by John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Lise Bruneau. Costumes, Ivania Stack. About 90 minutes. Through Oct. 16 at MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria. Call 800-494-8497 or visit metrostage.org

First Post byline, 1992; covering theater for the Post since 1999. His book "American Playwriting and the Anti-Political Prejudice" will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014.
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