Even with a stellar cast under the direction of Mike Nichols, the 1984 New York production of "Hurlyburly" was a long, hard haul. Under far less favorable conditions, the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company has revived the play as part of its summer repertory, and not surprisingly the haul is harder and longer.
The production checks in at 3 1/4 hours, and you will be acutely aware of every passing moment.
There is nothing pleasant about David Rabe's drama, which indulges the delusions and the neuroses of four men, fringe players in the entertainment industry, who like to think they're breaking into Hollywood's fast lane when they're skidding right off the freeway. Drugged to the gills most of the time, virulent in their male chauvinism, terminally self-absorbed, they are a patently unsavory crew.
Rabe is probably demanding the impossible when he asks us to feel for them. Merely liking them is out of the question. But they can cast a certain malignant spell as they lurch about a bachelor pad high in the Hollywood Hills, sounding the depths of their foggy souls. "Hurlyburly" is a savage portrait of the American male at his unzippered worst.
The only sympathetic character is a stripper, who likes to think her nude gyrations with a balloon qualify as "artistic dancing." But the men regard her as little more than a sex machine, to be used at will and then discarded -- from a moving car, if need be. In their eyes even a newborn baby girl qualifies as "a broad of the future."
That these creatures are inarticulate or stoned or both in no way inhibits their loquaciousness. They talk at, through, past and around one another. Connections are few. To the extent that the play has a plot, you could say it chronicles the increasing isolation of Eddie (Howard Shalwitz), a two-bit casting agent who drives away his so-called friends with his venomous tongue and then complains about the loneliness.
Normally, Woolly Mammoth casts its productions astutely, but it is totally off the mark this time. Shalwitz goes through the proper mental convolutions, perhaps, but the performance exists only from the neck up. The physical arrogance of the character is glaringly absent. This Eddie is not dangerous, merely off-putting. And when he gives in to his explosive sexual urges, he brings to mind Mr. Peepers, all atwitter in a girls' gymnasium.
Director Michael Kramer is not wrong to view "Hurlyburly" as a comedy of bad manners. That it is. But he doesn't get the sour climate of rough sex that hangs over the play like smog. What is funny -- if anything is funny here -- is the intellectual garbage that the characters parrot to justify their raw, animal behavior. But if that animal behavior isn't persuasive, a basic tension is gone and you're left with so much psychobabble.
As Eddie's roommate, Grover Gardner is so detached that you wonder if he knows he's even in the same play with the others. Then he chimes in tartly with a remark from on high, which makes the character seem more a scold than a cynic. As a sleazy agent, Rob Roy needs only red long johns to pass for a costume party Devil.
I can't say the women (Grainne Cassidy, Celeste Lawson and Deidra LaWan Johnson) fare much better. Lawson plays the balloon dancer, who is unique among the characters in that she can lay claim to a residual sense of morality. (She knows, for example, that you don't push people out of automobiles.) Her life is a pathetic waste, but she's trying to get through it with a tatter of dignity. Lawson, however, whines her way through the role, thereby sabotaging the play's one chance to reach your heart.
The casting comes close only with Marty Lodge, as a psychopathic actor who beats up women every time he feels down on himself. It's not a great performance, mind you, but it has some fury, swagger and torment. Watching Lodge, slicked back for the TV series he'll never get, you have a visceral sense of why this brotherhood is doomed to hell.
Otherwise, the bellyaching is tedious.
Hurlyburly, by David Rabe. Directed by Michael Kramer. Set, Jane Williams Flank; lighting, Christopher Townsend; costumes, Rosemary Pardee. With Howard Shalwitz, Marty Lodge, Grover Gardner, Rob Roy, Deidra LaWan Johnson, Grainne Cassidy, Celeste Lawson. At the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, in repertory with "Tales of the Lost Formicans," through Aug. 5.