Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A Punch in the Gut

Rainbow Kiss
By Simon Farquhar
Directed by Will Frears
Starring Michael Cates, Robert Hogan, Charlotte Parry, Peter Scanavino

Performances March 12 through April 13, 2008
59E59 Theater
59 East 59th Street

Charlotte Parry and
Peter Scanavino
The working-class characters in Simon Farquhar’s alternately erotic and violent play Rainbow Kiss don’t have time for niceties. Their bluntness comes through in various ways: how they speak, have sex, or handle the lowly lot they’ve drawn in life.

Living alone with his eight-month-old son in a rundown neighborhood in Aberdeen, Scotland, Keith has recently seen the boy’s mother confined to a mental institution. When he brings Shazza home for a one-night stand, he believes that their initial physical connection points to something deeper and more serious than she does, although it’s obvious that their attraction is mutual.

Meanwhile, Keith’s middle-aged neighbor Murdo occasionally stops by to talk; and Keith is also visited by Scobie, a scummy loan shark who threatens him physically because an overdue loan has not been repaid. Keith’s well being is also at stake due to his increasingly obsessive behavior concerning Shazza, who wants their relationship to remain casual, since she lives with -- and is engaged to -- someone else.

It must be admitted that the plot is unoriginal: This isn't the first time we've seen a horny young guy obsess over a sexy woman who is “trouble,” a nasty gangster slice up a guy who owes him money, etc. Yet the pleasant surprise of the play is how Farquhar makes it all seem fresh through his clever, biting dialogue and how he upends the conventions he works with, particularly in the way he treats the sex scenes between Keith and Shazza.

Barely knowing each other -- the play’s first line, spoken by Shazza when they first enter, is “What’s your name again?” -- these two enter into a relationship that takes a bizarre turn when Shazza begs Keith to sodomize her during a quickie behind the couch and his sick baby begins screaming in the next room. It’s a scene that’s simultaneously funny and scary, sexy and harrowing.

The characters in Rainbow Kiss will never share in Aberdeen’s prosperity from a North Sea oil boom. For the denizens of this near-slum, life is all about extremes. So Farquhar peppers the dialogue with variations on a word that sounds suspiciously like “fock,” and he twists the screws in a couple of sequences with implied and actual violence that's very difficult to watch.

Will Frears directs almost too frantically, which makes the gruffness of these people and their situations more gimmicky than their author allows. I don’t know if Frears changed the play’s ending as written into a punch in the gut for the audience, but its hopelessness and finality are in keeping with what Farquhar’s story has led to.

The acting is flawless. As Scobie, Michael Cates -- the lone Scotsman in the cast, though you'd never know it from everyone's authentic burrs -- is truly frightening from his first appearance, and he handles his two scenes with a perfect balance of gruffness and wit. Robert Hogan plays Murdo with an appealing world-weariness that reaches its apogee in his hilarious yet sad story of how he lost his job as a store Santa. Charlotte Parry takes the role of Shazza and completely avoids the bombshell-bimbo route. Instead, she creates a complicated, conflicted character who is always fighting her attraction to Keith -- and it’s her decision at play’s end that draws gasps of shock.

Keith is played impressively by Peter Scanavino. It’s a role that could easily be overdone, as Keith is often on the edge of hysteria. Yet Scanavino makes him sympathetic, if pathetic, so we care about him no matter how dangerously unbalanced he becomes.

That’s the real success of Rainbow Kiss: A young playwright and his first-rate actors are walking a tightrope without a net, and it’s exhilarating to watch.

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