Playwright James Hesla offers the carnival hard sell in "Behold!," a sentimental new comedy that weaves a varied band of oddballs into a loose cosmic pattern. Hesla's characters are in crazy pursuit of a ballyhooed box of prophecy, but one of the big problems with his scattershot script is that he doesn't make this goal urgent and goofy enough (a la the quest for the supreme egg salad recipe in Woody Allen's "What's Up, Tiger Lily?") to make you care.
The characters don't quite rope you in, either, though it's not for lack of trying in the Rorschach Theatre's popeyed production. But with a script that sends a fevered disc jockey, a cowboy sideshow huckster, a dry-cleaning clerk whose brain seems stuck on "pause," a maudlin sea captain and more into the same muddled quest, no doubt it's tough to play it cool.
Yet whenever "Behold!" relaxes a bit, the show comes closer to realizing its twin goals: a) marveling at fate, coincidences and unexplained phenomena, and b) making the trip an enjoyable lark.
Take the casual work of Shane Wallis and Hugh T. Owen as a pair of dim hotel bellboys idling by the side of a lonely highway. (A rutted two-lane road bisects Sara Nelson's set in the Casa del Pueblo's makeshift Sanctuary Theatre, with the audience sitting on all four sides of the stage for Act 1, and on three sides for Act 2, when the highway stretches out a little farther.) Owen's character kills time by nattering about some of the more salacious John Dillinger legends. Wallis's character is skeptical.
"It's wot I've 'eard," Owen's character insists repeatedly in his cockney accent, and the depth of his faith in pure scuttlebutt grows comically profound.
Or take Kerri Rambow, having sly fun as the campy and sinister Woman of Mystery. "I am a woman of mystery," Rambow intones in a dusky Russian accent. "I am not from around here." Slinking about in a strapless black dress, dangerously high heels and long black gloves, Rambow creates a nifty composite of Morticia Addams and Natasha from "The Bullwinkle Show" as the Woman schemes to get that strange box of prophecy. It's not a huge or nuanced role, yet the show perks up whenever Rambow appears.
Liz Chomko is winsome as a waitress who seems to be everywhere, and Jenny Morris and Andy Brownstein manage to find some laughs in their uninspired roles as cautious Midwesterners on vacation. (A folding beach chair seems to be eating Brownstein as the lights first come up on them.) Nearly everyone else in director Randy Baker's cast, though, falls into the antic category. That includes Cecil E. Baldwin's baritone ravings as the radio deejay, Tim Getman's pushy cowboy nerd turn as the huckster, and Grady Weatherford's painfully slow, spacey work as the paranoid dry-cleaning clerk.
Coincidence? Given Hesla's strident tabloid-style script, which features a claw-handed man and a squawking albatross delivering a momentous dry-cleaning ticket in a bottle, it seems more like fate.
Behold! by James Hesla. Directed by Randy Baker. Lights, Raquel Davis; costumes, Yvette M. Ryan; sound design, Matthew Frederick. Approximately 2 hours 5 minutes. Through June 25 at Casa del Pueblo Methodist Church, 1459 Columbia Rd. NW. Call 800-494-8497 or visit www.boxofficetickets.com/rorschach