Hellhound on My Trail

Viaduct Theater

Novelist, poet, screenwriter, and essayist Denis Johnson has developed a cultish following over the past two decades for his exacting portraits of malevolence, zealotry, lovelessness, addiction, and redemption. Four years ago, at age 49, he sat down to write his first play, Hellhound on My Trail. Recently he couldn’t name a single theatrical influence–because he hadn’t spent much time reading plays. But Viaduct Theater’s captivating midwest debut of Johnson’s work makes it clear to whom he owes a debt: if Harold Pinter hadn’t been priming the pump of theatrical indeterminacy for four decades, we might simply stare at Hellhound on My Trail in sour befuddlement.

In three tangentially related scenes, different pairs of characters with murky relationships and histories stalk each other in coy cat-and-mouse games. Their nerves are frazzled and their defenses high, as though their day of reckoning were just around the corner. You can’t say for certain what’s going on, but you know that everyone’s head is on the chopping block.

It’s tempting to dismiss Johnson’s confounding scenes as outdated dabbling in late-modernist absurdism. But Pinter, whose work is still often misread as absurdist, actually communicates the power of withheld information and of characters living under some unnamed constant threat. Moreover Pinteresque blank bits on the theatrical canvas heighten rather than compromise the sense of real life onstage. After all, people caught up in crises don’t have time for the kind of exposition we’re asked to accept as realistic in the traditional well-made play. As Pinter shows, you don’t have to know everything to know enough.

Like Pinter, Johnson has a taste for offbeat humor mingled with ominous uncertainty. In the play’s first scene, “An Exploration of the Colorado River,” Marigold Cassandra, a “level four” worker for the Department of Agriculture, has been summoned to Mrs. May’s Houston office for an interview. Marigold, who was somehow involved in the investigation of a jam factory, is apparently being grilled because someone complained that she invited a coworker to engage in lewd behavior with some jam. Although Mrs. May, the “ombudsperson for human resources for the southwest region,” purports to be Marigold’s representative in the scandal, her officious enthusiasm and veiled hostility suggest a more pernicious intent.

In this scene Johnson is clearly trying to find his way as a playwright. He often indulges his novelist side, giving Marigold long, overly literary monologues that are not only out of character but dramatically forced. And each time he lets Mrs. May launch into a florid explanation of the difference between “the facts” and “the truth,” he’s forcing ideas on the script rather than letting them flow organically from the material. But he’s nailed the tenuous, troubled, impossibly convoluted relationship between the two characters: Mrs. May has to get the goods, and Marigold has to put up smoke screens.

The intrigue of their 25-minute lockdown is more than enough to carry the scene to its conclusion. But Johnson cleverly adds another presence, unnamed and never visible: bureaucratic surveillance. Mrs. May announces early on that everything is being recorded–even though no microphones can be seen–and the women continually defer to and are obviously anxious about the massive federal system that governs their behavior to the inch. Both characters know they need to deflect the unknowable gaze from their own transgressions. Locked in a struggle for professional survival, they also have reason to form an alliance.

It’s a difficult scene to stage, but director Whitney Blakemore proves more than up to the challenge. She allows the confrontation to unfold with nonchalant vibrancy on Robert Whitaker’s brilliantly bland office set while the characters do their damnedest to maintain normalcy in this pressure cooker. Julia Siple as Marigold and Franette Liebow as Mrs. May are remarkably sensitive performers, attuned to the shifting dynamics of their relationship as well as to their characters’ impulses toward self-preservation. Despite Johnson’s occasional lapses, this is the kind of subtle, intense action that leaves you on the edge of your seat.

Blakemore and company maintain this intensity for as long as Johnson’s script will allow: only in the last third of the final scene does his sense of drama fall apart completely. In the second scene, “Head Rolling and Rolling,” Rom Barkhordar and Cindy Marker portray Jack Toast and Kate Wendell, government bureaucrats also caught up in the Department of Agriculture investigation. They meet for an impromptu lunch before going into an interrogation, which it appears Jack will chair while Kate occupies the hot seat. In the final scene, “Hellhound on My Trail,” Marigold’s drifter brother Cass, played by Steve Walker, is holed up in a seedy motel while a supposed FBI agent, played by J. Scott Turner, holds him at gunpoint. When the agent reveals his true identity, neither he nor Cass seems to have much stake in the action, and the play simply dribbles away.

But until that point Johnson casts a tantalizing spell. Blakemore’s eager cast are consistently engaging, playing the rhythms in Johnson’s text without compromising its psychological truth, giving nearly every moment an edgy giddiness. Best of all, everything they do feels spontaneous and genuine even as they maintain the script’s dramatic arc: tension builds within each scene and from one scene to the next.

After running the Viaduct as a rental house for five years, Blakemore is finally presenting her own staging, proving herself one of the sharpest, most passionate directors in town. Moreover, she’s found a playwright who speaks to her and who’s made himself readily available (he came to town from his home in Idaho twice to participate in rehearsals). Soon the Viaduct will mount Johnson’s second play, the Shepardesque Shoppers Carried by Escalators Into the Flames, in what we can hope is the beginning of a beautiful long-term collaboration.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Pamela Newmark.