Fran Gercke (right) and Tom Hall in Hurlyburly at Diversionary Theatre
Hurlyburly, the current Ion Theatre Company entry, gets a serious laugh before the show even starts. A self-assured recorded voice says the production has “two 10-minute intermissions and runs through Jan. 30.” The announcement makes it sound like the show runs 24-7 to the end of the month, with only a couple short breaks to cater to the obvious. The Porta-Potty peeps need to take note, and fast.
This jet-black comedy about drugs, sex, despair and death in substance-fueled 1980s Hollywood is a bit of a marathon as it is. And its three-hour running time is no match for the great Fran Gercke, who plays bedraggled Eddie, tight as a drum in his headlong trip to nowhere. Gercke is onstage virtually the entire time, his character bouncing off wall after wall in his longing to feel something. He won't always get there through the writing, as author David Rabe's time and place lean toward the threadbare. But Gercke's excellent turn is the focus of a very well-acted show that makes those three hours seem considerably shorter.
B-list casting directors Eddie and Mickey (Matt Scott) share a Hollywood Hills apartment with whoever chooses to schlep by for a taste of that day's drug of choice. Coke, pills and sex aren't just casual fun in this unit; they're de facto ways of life as led by the volatile Phil (Tom Hall), whose wife threw him out amid a fit of violence; wayward teen Donna (Morgan Trant), who flops at the place in exchange for sex; chic photographer Darlene (Sara Beth Morgan); and balloon dancer Bonnie (Karson St. John).
Amid his monosyllabic, no-nonsense speeches, Rabe makes no apologies for these idiots, who have excellent advice on life for everybody but themselves. But if modern Tinseltown's grip is as powerful as he draws it, somebody needs to tell him. His '80s references are way few and far between and come too late; too many nods to the slimy Hollywood underbelly center on only one character—Artie (Walter Ritter), a sleazoid director-producer. As with the company's recent Bent, this show labors under a thinly defined setting. The lack of referents makes it a little harder to get our arms and, therefore, our sympathies around this despondent brood.
But this task isn't exactly impossible, either. Rabe is excellent at making the most of his unseen characters (assorted wives and kids), and director Glenn Paris has coaxed Gercke's finest tour-de-force to date (if prop master Beth Gallagher is responsible for Eddie's glasses, then Gallagher's committed a minor stroke of genius). St. John is brilliantly resentful as Bonnie, and Scott's Mickey has the right swagger, although the actor's voice carries a certain out-of-character gentility. Everybody else is fine, with Hall's thuggish features a standout.
Claudio Raygoza's music beds and Chris Renda's lighting color this effort nicely. If only the same could be said for another tech component—the inconsiderate Guinea baboon next to me, who incessantly chewed his gum at a deafening volume for the first two acts (he didn't return for the third). On second thought, he may have been purposely making a meal of his tongue in a fit of masochistic abandon, in which case I wish him all the luck. Sheesh.
This review is based on the opening-night performance of Jan. 9. Hurlyburly runs through Jan. 30 at Diversionary Theatre, 4645 Park Blvd. in University Heights. $10-$25. www.iontheatre.com. Write to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.