Deconstruction is an exciting way to wake up an old piece of work. Like popping champagne. All the pressure of the original piece gets released in a fountain of fizz. But what seemed like a good idea at the start can end up a little flat and a lot messy.
But mess isn't a worry at the Ochre House where writer/director/actor/mastermind of experimental theater, Matthew Posey, has deconstructed Long Day's Journey Into Night into Morphing. His absurdist treatise on the resilience of family is at turns hilarious and horrifying. Family is equal source of strength and stress and, like life, is an inherited, terminal condition.
The Bonner Family is packed in a car headed to their seaside getaway after picking up the matriarch Mary (played serenely in drag by Justin Locklear) from treatment for her morphine addiction. Her tightwad husband, James, won't turn on the air conditioner despite the protestations of their sons, Jamie and Edmund, who are crammed into the backseat with her father Boo.
That the cast could make hot seem funny is a huge accomplishment considering the theater wasn't much cooler than that car and just as cramped on opening night. Though their bickering was just a sample of the trouble ahead, the laughs they generated grew in proportion to the twisted torment the family engenders and endures as history comes home to roost.
The father, James, is a former actor famed for one roll. He married Mary because she was in the family way, though she was convent bound. The fruit of that union, Edmund, hasn't risen to great heights unless you are talking blood alcohol level. His little brother's prospects would seem brighter were it not that he was dying of consumption. Their mother can't deal with any of this and immediate sets about shooting up.
So, what makes it funny?
Despite costumes suitable for the O'Neill's original Journey, designed by Justin Locklear, all of the characters seem copied from contemporary consciousness, each farther afield than the first. The elder son, Edmund, is played by Trenton Stephenson like Jeff Conaway's Kenickie from Grease. The grandfather, Boo, is played by Kevin Grammer as half George Burns and half Grandpa Simpson. The younger son, Jamie Bonner, is played by Mitchell Parrack as Christopher Walken from The Deer Hunter complete with repetitive remarks about 'Nam. The father, James Bonner, is played by Posey as a combination Gary Cooper and W.C. Fields.
This isn't to say the show is some sort of pop culture review with bad impressions for easy laughs. The characters work initially as convenient handles on a classic work. The sheer density of firmly committed characterizations creates a pressure cooker of absurdity. Rare to see such committed and disciplined performances on such random material.
The cast pulls at the fabric of family with such unified force that the outlandish characters eventually seem appropriate. In fact, the only quibble would be that the second act loses some fizz as the crazy becomes commonplace.
The texture of the absurd assortment is broken by Cyndee Rivera's cockney, shouting maid, Bridgette, though. That her character was incongruous to this manic familial mélange may have to do with her late addition to the cast. At the same time, the evening owes much to Rivera for setting the tone aright when she returns as Fat Violet. Her oversized foam-faced, airy-voiced prostitute puppet is pitch-perfect and provides an outsider's point of view just in time.
For "experimental theater" this is pretty sure-footed. The tiny set designed by Matthew Posey has a screen used for the opening projection of the cast in a car filmed live behind the theater. The camera is moved to a backyard rendering it a sort of window to the backyard and later a glimpse of the upstairs. "Inventive" may be a better word than "experimental."
Or considering this latest incarnation, the right word might be "successful."