Rag and Bone
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
November 16, 2007
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater's outstanding new production of Rag and Bone by Noah Haidle is a textbook example of everyone telling the same story. Haidle's surrealist black comedy isn't for everyone: it asks the audience to make great leaps of faith while yanking away the safety nets they're used to—logic, reality, tidy little resolutions, and the like. But, director Sam Gold and his remarkable cast are on the same page when it comes to creating Haidle's fraught, poetic world. They buy into Rag and Bone's vision so fully that their conviction—and their understanding of Haidle's sensibility—make the gaps easy to bridge.
George and Jeff are orphaned brothers who run a ladder store together (that's right: they sell custom-made ladders). Jeff is the young innocent who dreams of meeting their dead mother again in heaven; George is the older caretaker who's had enough of being the responsible one. He's got a little side business going so he can save up enough money to get out of the ladder business once and for all: he sells stolen human hearts on the black market. Anybody who needs one just has to walk into the store, ask for "a very special ladder," and George will take them into the back room for an ad hoc transplant. The idea is that once the recipient has a new heart, they will take on all the positive characteristics of its former owner.
Where does George get the hearts? He cuts them out of good, unsuspecting people: a public defender railing against social injustice; an advocate for underprivileged children; even a poet. The latter's heart is such a popular item that even the Poet himself wants it back. (That's right: the Poet walks around with his chest bandaged up searching for his stolen heart—it's that kind of play.)
From there, Rag and Bone takes all kinds of twists and turns. There's the Millionaire who wants a new heart because he can't feel anything anymore. There's T-Bone, the pimp with a heart of gold and dead mother complex the size of the Grand Canyon (his mother died giving birth to him). His hooker girlfriend also has a generous streak, giving the Poet freebies. All of them eventually get embroiled in the plot to get the Poet's heart back. George, on the other hand, has set aside a very special heart for himself, and undergoes quite a transformation once he gets it put in.
As you've probably guessed, Rag and Bone has two prominent themes: dead hearts and motherless children. Many of the characters here want to feel something again—love, hope, etc. George, Jeff, and T-Bone all have issues with their deceased mothers to reconcile and each of them eventually does, albeit in his own idiosyncratic way. Haidle seems more interested in investigating their obsessions than putting forth a moral to the story, which explains some of the play's more outlandish but affecting moments, including Jeff's fixation on building a ladder that will reach to heaven and a mass sing-a-long to "Baby Mine" from the Disney animated film, Dumbo.
Gold and set designer Dane Laffrey embrace Rag and Bone's wild antics with a go-for-broke attitude towards scene transitions and playing space usage. They create a free-flowing environment where T-Bone's bathroom, the Hooker's street corner, a beach front in Bermuda, and George's makeshift operating room all occupy similar space in the ladder store. Lighting designer Ben Stanton also does a great job sectioning off the individual playing areas and still making them feel like part of the same world. Gold also adds several nice goofy non-realistic touches, like punctuating slaps and punches with a bongo beat.
The actors really sell the heck out of Rag and Bone, too, with each member of the cast giving a delightful performance. Henry Stram and David Wohl are both unassumingly funny in their own way as the Poet and the Millionaire, respectively, while Audrey Lynn Weston makes a strong impression in a pair of smaller utility roles. Kevin Jackson and Deirdre O'Connell are screamingly funny and unexpectedly moving as T-Bone and the Hooker. Similarly poignant and hilarious are Michael Chernus and Matthew Stadelmann, both of whom anchor the production with stellar performances as George and Jeff.
It's not every day that theatergoers see a play like Rag and Bone. The creators pull off this challenging work effortlessly, putting forth a production that makes sense of the absurd and the incongruous. In other words: Rattlestick Playwrights Theater does it again. If you haven't paid them a visit before, now may be the time.