Three discrete segments make up Julia Jarcho’s Grimly Handsome, and a simple description will make it sound like their main commonality is the company of three actors who perform in each segment. Yet what makes the piece work is the sly and oblique way that the segments do relate and interweave, both thematically and in terms of the plot.
The first part centers on Alesh and Gregor, two immigrant Christmas-tree sellers on a city street (Eastern European, it seems), one of whom is strikingly good-looking. They ogle the women who walk by their urban forest, especially the lonely-seeming ones like Natalia, and talk about how to seduce them. But when their methods start to sound distinctly creepy, are we witnessing a cultural incongruity, or an intended sexual assault?
In part two, a pair of detectives, Alpert and Greggins, investigates a murder, the most recent victim of the “Christmas Ripper,” a killer who’s been operating the past several holiday seasons. They question a maddeningly unreliable potential witness, Nally, who may or may not have seen the body being dumped in a vacant lot...and his reliability is in no way enhanced by his insistence that he’s also seen mysterious wild animals there. At the same time, something strange is going on with Alpert’s wife, Nelly.
And in part three, three lesser pandas rule a vacant lot, trying to stay hidden from the human world.
The piece gets off to a slow start; the first few scenes have an affectless quality that felt a little overstylized to me, as if Jarcho (who is both playwright and director) is trying a little too hard to set up expectations for a very different play than this ultimately becomes. But then the tone starts to shift, at first almost imperceptibly and then quite clearly, toward the macabre; it becomes clear that these men are more sinister, almost less human, than they originally seemed. You start to realize that Natalia, the woman who’s given a miniature tree by Gregor and seems interested in Alesh, could be any woman; her character isn’t really relevant, is almost a distraction. And it’s not until you start to realize what these men really have in mind, what they can camouflage behind their innocuous presence as Christmas-tree sellers in an anonymous city—and that when they say mothers and fathers shouldn’t name their daughters, it’s “asking for help. The kind you don’t want” this is not a quirk in their English but a genuine understanding of how they relate to women—that the engine of the play is really set into motion, an engine that will carry through the seemingly disparate other parts and wind up with a strange meditation on identity from the perspective of a wild animal.
Once the play shifts into its second segment, too, the recurring themes and ideas start to become clear. One thread shows a preoccupation with partnering and doubling: business partners who become partners in crime, police partners whose personal lives may also be oddly twinned. And in addition to the casting of the same actors and names that strongly echo one another from part to part (Gregor becomes Greggins becomes Grox), in one segment, the same actor is wife and witness, Nelly and Nally. Another recurring theme is the idea or meaning of character: human (or animal) character or nature (personality, even?) against or among the social roles that we all play: how is a cop or an immigrant or a cop’s wife supposed to behave. (This strand seems clearest in the middle section, where the balance works the best between the idea of character—the archetype of “cop”—and the specifics of these characters.) And a third is this idea of “handsomeness” as this almost tangible quality that affects the behavior of others, of how appearance acts in the world.
Jarcho often directs her own work. Here, that enables her to crystallize the particular stylization of the language and the character portrayals—though there are moments when I wonder if playing against rather than into the stylization might have added layers of subtlety, especially in the first part. Jenny Seastone Stern (as the mousy Natalia in part one, cop’s wife Nelly and witness Nally in part two, and Noplop in part three) seems to do this naturally, and she’s a revelation, painting both the broad strokes of character archetype and subtle nuance in each portrayal, giving four utterly different but equally rich performances.