Cactus Theatre

at the Synergy Center

David Rabe’s Hurlyburly takes us on a scary three-and-a-half-hour trip deep inside a guy named Eddie–that’s “inside” as in autopsy. Under his thin skin, Eddie is mostly dead, numbed by a self-defeating sophistication, a drug-enhanced paranoia, and an alienation so complete he talks to people as if he were switching channels. Eddie could be the archetypal 80s antihero.

Cactus Theatre’s revival renews your faith in non-Equity theater–a triumph of casting that yields committed, natural performances worthy of the preinstitutional Steppenwolf. Clearly many well-spent rehearsals have gone into making Rabe’s slice of death stunning and spontaneous. Cactus’s version holds its own even compared to the Goodman’s memorable, star-studded 1984 premiere (a staging that I recall slightly succumbed to the play’s freak-show overkill).

Eddie deftly uses sarcasm to fence people off (“You’re just background” is one choice dismissal); he analyzes his fondest feelings obsessively, paralyzing them. Yet he desperately wants to prove he’s alive–by altering the people around him. Unfortunately, the difference he makes is destructive.

Rabe’s Eddie, a coke-snorting casting director, has a resonance much beyond Hollywood–he’s a virtual lab specimen from a self-absorbed decade. Addicted to evasion, a master of passive aggression, Eddie controls people by setting up ugly scenes, then blames the victim for confirming his own cynicism. Eddie is a solid citizen of a town in which lies are the unofficial currency, and he reflects this perverse two-dimensional television world: he can’t bring himself to feel genuinely (if only he could be as mad as hell, like Peter Finch in Network). He’s the human analogue of the TV set, which is like a second drug to him. For him, Johnny Carson’s monologues are just as real or unreal as news footage of children squashed on the sidewalk after jumping from a building on fire.

His deadness takes many forms–misogyny, anti-Semitism, a sick self-hatred. Here’s a man who announces, “We’re all just cardboard cutouts from what was once prime-time life,” who throws out venal advice like “You have certain human qualities, and you have to know how to exploit them,” who confesses he’s the major distraction in his own life.

The men around him have similar dark drives. Like Speed-the-Plow, Hurlyburly relentlessly exposes their macho Hollywood bluster, immunity to shame, and elaborate rationalizations for piranha behavior. (Everyone here talks in convoluted psychobabble.)

Eddie, his roommate and colleague Mickey, and Eddie’s buddy Phil (an unemployed actor) suffer from bad marriages for a reason: their relations with women are reduced to mere scorecards. Eddie and Mickey quarrel over Darlene, a photojournalist who’s wise to Eddie in ways he can’t stand. Violently unstable, Phil takes his failure out on all around him. But he’s especially hard on Donna, a burnt-out teenage runaway whom the roommates take in as a sexual playmate–calling her their “CARE package”–and on Bonnie, a good-time girl and full-time coke fiend.

The play focuses on the twisted ties between Phil, pathetically dependent and as volatile as a pit bull, and the arch-manipulator Eddie. Though Eddie knows Phil’s destructive potential, maliciously he keeps setting him up for defeat (such as telling him not to reconcile with his wife). When Phil wrecks himself for good, it triggers a storm of guilt in Eddie, perhaps the one force that can stop his continual drifting from one addiction to another.

But weird as it seems, there’s a battered integrity behind Eddie’s midlife crisis; eventually we sense that he’s tied himself in knots trying to lead a coherent existence in a hurly-burly that denies it.

Unfortunately, to drive that point home Rabe turns Eddie into a sounding board for badly integrated editorials about an absurd America. As excuses for his helplessness, Eddie fulminates about the neutron bomb (“a thing that loves things”–that destroys people but preserves property) and about how the Nestle firm persuaded third-world mothers to stop nursing their children so it could sell them defective breast-milk substitutes. Rabe has a lot to declare, but that’s no excuse for letting his characters babble on. Yet by the end, Rabe does make us care about a character who doesn’t seem to care at all himself.

Considering Hurlyburly’s Niagara of words, this staging by Bryan Burke and Robert Ellermann is a wonder of obstacles overcome: crises that teeter between melodrama and sick jokes; tortuous, sometimes incoherent confessional speeches that turn into position papers; and mad scenes in which Rabe’s creatures go into psychological feeding frenzies. Though the young, hungry cast of seven sometimes capitulate to the characters’ cartoonlike qualities, mostly they invest their energy well; these are roles that justify themselves only when taken over the top.

Though, like everyone here, he’s younger than his part, Michael Shuler sweats out Eddie like a fever; he shows us not only the guy’s prickly defensiveness, halfhearted male bonding, and insufferable sarcasm but the crucial endangered idealism that these evasions so feebly protect. When Eddie cracks under the strain of too many guilty feelings, we sense just how hard it was for him to waste his energy warding off life.

The supporting roles are mainly reactive ones, especially the women’s. Moira Brennan takes the misogynistic role of the teenybopper airhead Donna and gives it some quirky dignity–especially in the final scene, when she gets through to Eddie as no woman has before. As Darlene and Bonnie, Amelia Barrett and Lynne Hall strongly convey the women’s bafflement over Eddie and his cruisers; but though there may not be an ounce of feminist consciousness between them, they’ve got sufficient moxie to know when they’ve been used, and get out.

It’s hilarious and depressing to watch Mickey, Phil, and Artie (an older TV writer) clumsily cope with their testosterone traumas. Kenneth Cavett plays Artie with loudmouthed vulgarity; his character never seems to worry much about all the places he isn’t going. Neil Weiss’s Mickey is a study in slyness; detached where Eddie is engulfed, he’s distanced himself into a bitterness worse than Eddie’s solipsism.

The play’s standout, mind-blowing tour de force comes from William Green. Weasely, edgy, and scary, his Phil is so loaded with frustration he almost implodes. Though all Rabe’s creatures work overtime to be misunderstood, Green’s Phil heads for disaster like a Patriot missile. You don’t want to meet this guy while he’s warming up for this show.

A cavil about Robert Hamilton’s bunkerlike apartment set: the World War II backdrop from the previous Synergy show, Open City Theatre Company’s The Man With the Golden Arm, shows through bizarrely. Couldn’t anyone have repainted the walls? It’s the show’s only sign of sloppiness.