As we were discussing Spirits of Exit Eleven after we saw it Tuesday night, I remarked to my companion that the play feels like Michael Puzzo's Balm in Gilead. (Which made reading this interview with Puzzo, where he says something similar, kind of gratifying.)
So, yes, it's got the same wistful, gritty, melancholy quality that distinguishes Lanford Wilson's play about denizens of a dive diner in a lousy Manhattan neighborhood in the '60s. But Spirits doesn't have the epic sweep of Gilead; it's an intimate slice of life, about five characters in a strip club/pizzeria located at the titular location (off the Jersey Turnpike; near Woodbridge, presumably). It's early evening on Halloween, and the club is dead, though the expectation is that business will pick up later on. For now, Butchy, the bouncer/manager of this establishment, is dealing with Marie Therese, a stripper who is protesting the lack of heat by wearing an Eskimo costume. He's also intermittently coping with the loss of a deejay who was also a drug addict who apparently stole a bunch of money from the club, the unwanted competition from an "artisinal" pizza joint down the street, and a jukebox that seems to be haunted by the ghost of another stripper who died several months earlier.
As the evening progresses, an odd young man shows up; he says his name is Pepe (Butchy asks: like the romantic French skunk?) and he wants to work here as pizza chef. The impromptu job interview that follows is vintage Puzzo, the funniest scene in the play and a definite highlight. But this man, as we suspect, isn't entirely truthful, and when he returns after being sent away to perform a sequence of tasks by Butchy, we learn some of his secrets.
We also meet Agatha, another stripper in the club, who is struggling to raise her young son and has a dream of getting pole dancing into the Olympics (and yes, we get a glimpse at her planned routine). At a table, passed out much of the time, is Tommy, a (the?) regular at this club, who periodically rises from his seat and stupor to offer surprising tidbits of lyrical wisdom. (He's not what he seems either.)
The relationship between Butchy and Marie Therese, meanwhile, is clearly complicated and fraught and intense. And the spirit of Tina, the dancer who passed away, infects everybody and everything this Halloween night. How else can we explain the fact that her signature song keeps starting up on the jukebox when it isn't even plugged in?
The beauty of the piece is the language and the characters, which constantly keep us engaged and expectant. Puzzo wisely doesn't try to resolve much in the script, keeping us and his characters in a kind of limbo that resembles real life. Spirits is funny, touching, and unexpectedly warm; Butchy, Marie Therese, and Tommy, in particular, are people we like spending time with and want to know more about. (Maybe there's a tv series in here somewhere?)
Frank Licato's direction is clear and straightforward, utilizing David Meyer's excellent, detailed set. Alexis Forte's costumes are appropriately heightened considering that two of the five characters are strippers and another is hidden under a Frankenstein mask (honoring the holiday). Pole choreography is by Alisa Boniello.
The actors are fine, with Michael Carlsen empathetic and oddly vulnerable as the bouncer and Deborah Rayne matching him on both counts as Marie Therese. Shane Patrick Kearns makes much of Pepe, and Nicole Balsam offers comic relief and more as the dim-witted dancer Agatha. Fans of Stephen Payne won't be surprised to learn that he dominates the proceedings whenever Tommy comes centerstage; he's a masterful actor and he delivers Puzzo's dialogue with a wonderfully self-aware brio that always captivates.
Spirits of Exit Eleven is, as Puzzo says in the previously mentioned interview, another in a long line of bar plays about dashed hopes and fading dreams. But this bard of Northern New Jersey infuses the genre with something very specific and special, giving voice to folks who aren't often given one.