In dramas, as in life, perspective is the key to sustaining mental equilibrium when dealing with anguish. In the theater, what exactly does it say of the playwright's perspective when a character flails in despair while the author smirks with a kind of Gothic bemusement?
New plays are on a tear with characters hand-wringing and chest-beating, as in the ancient Greek tragedies, while their authors hedge their bets by ridiculing that agony with absurdist-tinged humor — from Stephen Karam's Sons of the Prophet to Tracy Letts' August, Osage County, both seen on prominent New York stages in the last few years.
There's nothing particularly new about the comedy of misery. Shakespeare's Measure for Measure is just that, ornately dramatizing the hypocritical moral rectitude of its lecherous protagonist against the backdrop of decapitations and fake decapitations. John Guare's 1971 The House of Blue Leaves does the inverse through its zany farce featuring three crazed nuns during a papal visit to New York — while a zookeeper/would-be songwriter despairs over his life's vapidity, leading him, shockingly, to murder his nutty wife. Then there's Beth Henley's 1979 Pulitzer Prize–winning Crimes of the Heart — a comedy about a woman who shoots her abusive husband — which evokes an entire legacy of Southern Gothic literature (by the likes of Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams).
Henley is back with a new work at the Geffen, The Jacksonian, with an all-star cast and director (Robert Falls) putting on this play that could easily be called Crimes of the Heart 2.
The backdrop is a tawdry Mississippi motel (is there any other kind?) in 1964, a time and a place where bigotry had none of today's sugarcoating: Lynchings and kangaroo courts make an unimpeachable case for social injustice, compared to today's legally murkier complaints of legislatures rigging election laws and police engaging in racial profiling.
A black man has been charged with and jailed for a local murder. He didn't do it, and the barkeep at the Jacksonian motel, Fred (Bill Pullman, in a diabolically twitchy performance), knows that very well. The aptly named maid, Eva White (Glenne Headly), natters gleefully, almost licking her lips, about seeing the suspect executed, his larger crime being that he's black in 1964 Mississippi and perhaps being somewhere near the scene of the crime, or so somebody said.
This entire play is about guilt by association. There isn't a character onstage who isn't guilty of keeping company with twisted souls. Aging Eva keeps pulling on wedding-bell ropes because Fred proposed to her, but now that he's taken a closer look at her, dread is setting in, and he's backing out with the lame excuse of a terminal heart condition — a hardening of the heart, really — that could fell him within days.
"Set your sights on the living," he cautions her. But she's having none of it: "You think life is nothing but sorrow and misery is a blessing from God. But you deserve happiness. You deserve me. I got my shoes dyed bone ivory to match the bridal dress. We might as well think about having children. Some kids would be nice."
Meanwhile, both the bar and the stark motel room (rendered with discomfiting authenticity by set designer Walt Spangler) of long-term tenant and dentist Bill Perch (Ed Harris) serve as a testing ground for a marriage that Bill is trying to rescue, as he's about the only soul unaware that his wife, Susan (Amy Madigan), has already filed for divorce. Their pimple-blotched, hopelessly shy 16-year-old daughter, Rosie (Bess Rous), mediates her parents' already broken shell of reconciliation, pleading with her mother not to go through with the divorce.
Harris' Bill grinds through his anguish with admirable tenacity, until it's no longer admirable: Bill's binges of sucking chloroform and sodium pentothal in his motel room, while Eva dances on his bed, are his version of mixing meth and pot. The comedy is harvested when Bill is caught in the act by his wife, and when Fred, with a kind of repellent, convulsive charm, tries to seduce young Rosie by demonstrating his dubious skills as a sword-swallower, using a butter knife.
The Jacksonian has David Lynch's dkittish humor as a cousin, and is probably also as much akin to Sam Shepard's family-dysfunction dramedy A Lie of the Mind as to Henley's own Crimes of the Heart, snaring the humor when quiet desperation turns noisy.
The key to this play, in a production marbled with top-tier performances and deft staging, is not in connections or clarity (the play deliberately, and to its credit, mutates the linear passage of time) but in perspective, in the balance between the agony and the remove from it.
Just when the agony is taking a grip, the diverting humor is of a quality that recalls too much its gothic derivations, so that it borders on satire or even a parody of the genre itself. The effect is like one of Bill's anesthetics.
This is a subtle but crucial complaint in a work that's so beautifully conceived and, in most ways, beautifully executed and well worth seeing.
THE JACKSONIAN | By Beth Henley | Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Wstwd. | Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. | Through March 25 | (310) 208-5454 | geffenplayhouse.com