'Evildoers' Drifts Into the Absurd
By Geary Danihy
The Evildoers, a play by David Adjmi that recently premiered at The Yale Rep, might be subtitled Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf meets The Bad Seed, as produced by Krafft-Ebing.
What Adjmi has crafted is a cautionary tale of sorts, but what the audience is being cautioned about is not exactly clear (except, perhaps, to avoid French kissing at all costs). In the opening scene, set in a restaurant, we are introduced to two couples, ostensibly friends of long-standing, yet the basis for the friendship seems strained at best. The characters are, with the exception of Martin (Matt McGrath), immediately recognizable. Carol (Johanna Day) is the arch-bitch wife with a viper's tongue who covers her most toxic comments by immediately saying, "Just kidding!"
Carol is married to Jerry (Stephen Barker Turner), a bibulous psychoanalyst given to meandering monologues that trail off into mumbles that Judy (Samantha Soule), the repressed Jewish princess married to Martin, tries to follow and interpret if only to be polite. These characters have been seen on stage and screen before, often drawn with greater depth and perception than Adjmi attempts here. It is Martin who is the enigma, for he sits through most of the table talk simply glaring, speaking occasionally in snappish tones to offer vague comments about the nature of love and authenticity, focusing on Carol's engagement ring, which she has had enhanced by adding garnets to the setting. Something is obviously brewing here, and whatever it is boils over at the end of the scene when Martin verbally assaults his wife and storms out of the restaurant.
What follows, mostly set in Carol and Jerry's Manhattan apartment (evocatively created by scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez), is the destruction of the couples' lives as orchestrated by Martin who, after coming out of the closet, leaves his wife in Westchester sans electricity and parks himself in his friends' apartment. Throughout the remainder of the first act he whines and accuses, condemns and upbraids, most of the time garbed in his pajamas.
There seems to be no rational reason (and this may be the point) for Martin's actions; they certainly can't be laid at the doorstep of his newfound homosexuality, which manifests itself as inept gropes and artless schoolyard kisses. There also seems to be no rational reason why Carol and Jerry allow him to take up residence other than that he has nowhere else to go - what Martin does for a living is never revealed - and, of course, it is necessary for the plot, such as it is.
The first act contains some of the plays most intelligible scenes, primarily fueled by Day, who is dead-on as the tough-talking wedding planner who takes great delight in calling a spade a spade and then using its point to draw blood. Turner also has his moments and Soule does what she can with her one-dimensional character, which Adjmi may have created after watching too many Sandy Dennis movies.
McGrath's portrayal of Martin, however, lacks focus, although this cannot entirely be the actor's fault. One wonders if, during rehearsals, McGrath ever posed the question of motivation to Adjmi or director Rebecca Bayla Taichman, and if he did, what was their answer? As it is, McGrath's character comes off as an overly intelligent, socially inept college sophomore given to brooding when he is not pontificating.
It is Day's sharp-edged portrayal that gives the first act its emotional thrust and holds out hope that things will get better (or at least clearer) in the second act. Alas, such is not the case, for it is in the second act that the play slips whatever moorings it had and drifts off into the Sea of the Absurd, eventually sinking under its own surreal weight. Martin's machinations become more lethal as their motivations become even more obscure; Jerry undergoes an emotional meltdown and ends a babbling, naked child begging for love; Judy, her repressions shrugged off (her Bride of Frankenstein hairdo visually cues the audience she has had an awakening) gets it all out; and Carol, well, Carol gets her just desserts, after a fashion, paying dearly for having used her tongue as a weapon.
As directed by Taichman, the final scenes are rife with symbolism, much of which seems to be self-referential (if not self-indulgent). There's a lot of death and transfiguration, but to what purpose is anyone's guess. Throughout the evening the audience has been exposed to a plethora of "ideas" about the nature of God and marriage, the purpose of suffering, Christian fundamentalism, the idea of the authentic and various takes on loving thy neighbor, and perhaps much of this is up there on the stage in the play's final moments. Then again, perhaps not. Carol points to her engagement ring; Judy, now in a wedding dress, seems to shun the ring's power as if it has evil, cabalistic powers; Martin stands triumphant; and Jerry…well, Jerry is on his knees, hands supporting his shaking head. It is apparently all too much for Jerry. The audience can empathize with him.