By David A. Rosenberg
Cruelty begins at home. In "The Evildoers," having its world premiere at Yale Rep, two 40-something couples wound themselves and each other. Adrift, suffering, cynical, inauthentic, violent, they stand in for the larger cruelties in society. David Adjmi's play sometimes seems adrift itself, yet there's a fierce talent here, a willingness to go out on a limb and progress from realism to a kind of magic realism where nothing is as it appears to be.
Audiences may be split. Some will no doubt want a large shot of post-show bourbon, others will want to discuss what they've seen, or think they've seen. At the performance caught, the final reaction was tepid although the journey was filled with laughter and gasps.
Adjmi's references run from the Bible to John Updike, from fundamentalism to existentialism. His title is a not-so-sly dig at President Bush's labeling those who are "against us" with the biblical term "evildoers" and may also allude to a rock group known as Jihad Jerry and the Evildoers. Adjmi's anchorless baby boomers look for comfort somewhere, anywhere. "We shall not all sleep," one quotes from Corinthians, "but we shall all be changed."
And change they do from the first moment we see them, having what appears to be a friendly dinner to celebrate the anniversary of Carol, a sharp-tongued wedding planner, and Jerry, a boozy psychologist. Their friends, Martin, an anesthesiologist, and his spacey Peter Pan-ish wife Judy seem perfectly happy. That is, until Martin explodes in fury, accusing Carol especially of not knowing who she is. That turns out to be ironic, since Martin later realizes he's gay, after a subway pickup. But just when the whole structure threatens to implode ("Oh, no, not another gay play!"), Adjmi takes off in six other directions.
"Are we meant to suffer?" asks Martin. "Love your enemy," says Jerry. Carol and Judy glance off a political discussion about Pol Pot and the Kurds, China and Iran. ("It's a little disturbing," says Carol. "We all have to see disturbing things sometimes," answers Judy.) And so much more. Running throughout is what happens to Carol's engagement ring. Why has she set garnets around the original diamond? Why does it continually get lost? Is it a magic symbol, a ring that curses its owners, right out of Tolkien or Wagner?
The possibilities rattle the mind, especially in the more serious second half when all hell breaks loose, scenically as well as dramatically. At the climax, as great sheets of rain pelt the windows of Carol and Jerry's Manhattan apartment, the effect is akin to the Apocalypse.
Director Rebecca Bayla Taichman and her actors fearlessly handle all this tumult. Taichman doesn't pull back from either the small, introspective moments or the sequences of overwhelming force. As Carol, Johanna Day overdoes the character's abrasiveness though her tirades sting. As the defenseless Judy, Samantha Soule is both vapid and lucid. Matt McGrath is pitiless as the over-sensitive Martin and Stephen Barker Turner is a revelation as the confused, alcoholic Jerry, driven nearly mad by the madness of his friends.
The evening wouldn't have the power it does without Riccardo Hernandez's astonishing sets, Stephen Strawbridge's ominous lighting, Susan Hilferty's telling costumes or Bray Poor's mysterious sound design.
"Evildoers" may remind you of Edward Albee's lacerating play about marriage, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," as well as his allegorical "Tiny Alice." Whatever its origins, "Evildoers" is difficult but cannot be ignored, even when its ambitions outweigh its accomplishments. Playwright Adjmi is, at this point, more than promising.