nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
September 20, 2007
Adam Rapp's powerful new play, American Sligo, presents a frustrating difficulty for theatergoers. Rattlestick Playwrights Theater's exemplary production features top-notch direction and acting, including a pair of exhilarating performances by Marylouise Burke and Paul Sparks. The script, which is both harrowing and hilarious, contains some of the author's very best writing to date. There is a richness and a depth to American Sligo that indicates significant growth in Rapp as a dramatist.
And yet, for all that the play has going for it, there is still one confounding aspect of it that cannot be ignored: it ends at exactly the moment when, instead of concluding, there should be an intermission. To my mind, Rapp has written what feels like a two-act play, except it doesn't have a second act. I'm guessing this is intentional, but that doesn't make it any less aggravating. Personally, I felt a little cheated by the ending of American Sligo, but that's only because the rest of it is so damn good.
Set in Midwestern suburbia, the play introduces Art "Crazy Train" Sligo (pronounced SLEE-go), a professional WWF-type wrestler who's on the verge of retirement. Portly and in his 60s, Crazy Train (as he prefers to be called) sits down for a family dinner on the eve of his farewell match that turns out to be anything but nice. His sister-in-law, Bobbie, natters on like a meddling and neurotic housewife; his two sons, Victor and Kyle, feud with a hostility that goes beyond brotherly needling; and Bobby, a fan of Crazy Train's who won a contest to have dinner with him beforehand, sits quietly observing all of the emotional carnage. The animosities escalate throughout the evening until they reach the point where Crazy Train's match may not be the only farewell in store for the Sligos.
The emotional warfare at the heart of American Sligo follows in the tradition established by American playwrights like O'Neill, Williams, and Miller. Dashed hopes and bitterness bred from life's disappointments are everywhere. Victor, a whip-smart could've-been college athlete sidelined by injury and diabetes, has turned to a cocaine-fueled career as a petty criminal. Kyle, disgusted by Victor's lingering golden-boy status, vents his outrage at being considered second best. Facing constant reminders that she's "not a real Sligo," Bobbie tries to earn her place in the family she desperately wants to belong to. And Crazy Train silently misses his late wife so much that he keeps her place at the dining room table set in perpetuity.
Amidst the angst, however, are a lot of comical moments that provide illuminating details and lighten the mood somewhat. Crazy Train spends the entire meal eating in his wrestling uniform, a telling peculiarity that speaks volumes about the work persona he claims to dislike. Bobbie, hard-pressed to remember names and places (she calls Bobby, the visiting fan, about a million different names but his own), still tries to improve her vocabulary with a new word every day (her attempts to use "grand" and "lothario" in a sentence are very funny). And Rapp's casual use of The Clapper at a couple of crucial moments is priceless.
The ending, however, is a real letdown. I won't spoil it, but I will say it feels rushed and unearned, as if it needs more of a build-up to be wholly justified. A second act would certainly help resolve that, either one that follows what is now the ending or one that leads up to it. Rapp has crafted an intriguing enough story to warrant that.
But, the rest of the production almost completely makes up for whatever reservations I have about the play's ending. Serving as his own director, Rapp creates a world full of savage, cutting humor and dark, sinister portents. The stakes are high throughout and the tension remains tightly coiled, providing a viscerally engrossing experience for the viewer. The design elements by John McDermott (sets), Ben Stanton (lights), and Daphne Javitch (costumes) are excellent, supplying enlightening details (i.e., an American flag on the front porch; Crazy Train's long black wig; The Clapper) of their own.
Marylouise Burke leads the cast with a bravura performance as Bobbie. Simultaneously heartbreaking and dignified, she stops at nothing in her quest for acceptance as she takes aggressive enthusiasm and politeness to new extremes. Rapp regular Paul Sparks turns in a ferocious performance as Victor. His maniacal blend of humor and menace evokes a coked-up Bill Murray out for blood. Guy Boyd is stoically salt-of-the-earth as the straight-shooting Crazy Train, and Michael Chernus, another Rapp regular, is once again splendid as the indignant Kyle. Matthew Stadelmann's jittery turn as Bobby is a poignant scene-stealer, and Emily Cass McDonnell and Megan Mostyn-Brown provide excellent support as Victor and Kyle's respective girlfriends (to say more about their roles, though, would spoil some major surprises).
If one can see past American Sligo's abrupt denouement, (as I finally decided I could), one will be treated to some exciting and well-done theatre. As a director, Rapp is starting to come into his own; and, as a writer, he continues to grow by leaps and bounds. This latest step in his development, despite my reservations, is still very much worth seeing.