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Hurlyburly

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The malaise of lives unlived and loves unknown bears down on the characters in Hurlyburly just as oppressively as the sun over the Southern California locale in which it's set. David Rabe's play, which is populated with characters who know exactly where they are but no idea where they're going, will remain relevant as long as exterior pressures threaten to squeeze the life from those doing their conscious or unconscious best to avoid living it.

Yet there's a faint patina of datedness about The New Group's revival at Theatre Row's Acorn Theatre. Much of Rabe's dialogue sounds now like overly serious Seinfeld: A colorful collection of words, phrases, and anecdotes about nothing in particular that might add up to something if you can take it all in from far enough back. Only for a few moments in this production can you ever get quite enough perspective for the play to feel truly devastating.

And while the characterizations of four men fighting through the Hollywood rat race (and the women who tag along, often with unfortunate results) remain sharp, time has not been particularly kind to the self-absorbed, cocaine-infused Hollywood culture of the mid-1980s that Rabe uses as his setting. In this production, which Scott Elliott has directed, the era and locale often seem as antique as the studio system that ruled Hollywood several decades earlier.

To compensate, Rabe has anchored this revised version of the play (two acts, edited from three in the 1984 production) around the concern for the world collapsing just outside the walls of Derek McLane's drearily sunny house set. The threats facing the characters - nuclear annihilation, the neutron bomb - have appropriate enough analogues to today's world, but the threats facing the characters are more stated than felt: Elliott's lackadaisical production delivers none of the noisy tumult that the title promises.

Ethan Hawke, in the central role of Eddie, best manages to marshal his character's unique peccadilloes (a penchant for exploiting the vagaries of the English language in his often botched communication attempts) into a complete performance. Hawke's Eddie is bruised but resilient, an optimist of a generally unfamiliar sort; nonetheless, he's incapable of truly achieving any of his goals, personal or professional. He's loving but has little softness to display for his uncooperative ex-wife or the other women he beds during the play, though he has apparently infinite patience for his friends, no matter how troubled or dangerous.

It's a complex, often volatile characterization that doesn't always pay off for Hawke. In the dragging middle section of the play - much in need of the intermission Rabe removed - Hawke almost seems on autopilot, being carried along by Eddie's laissez-faire and misogynistic attitudes. But as the play reminds us again and again, men aren't so easily tamed, and Eddie proves no exception, though Hawke maintains control frequently enough.

Less successful are Josh Hamilton, who plays Eddie's roommate Mickey with humor several shades too brittle and understated to pack the needed acidic punch, and Bobby Cannavale, who as Eddie's actor friend Phil comes across as so doltish that it's too easy to accept (and have sympathy for) the tragic troubles he brings upon himself. Wallace Shawn is considerably entertaining in the smaller role of Artie, but never connects with the Jewish roots that provide a vital thematic link to Hollywood past, and an art and culture that are no more.

Though the women in the play are primarily the victims of the men's behaving badly, they're nicely embodied by the three actresses that round out the cast: Halley Wegryn Gross offers a compellingly innocent portrait of a young girl on a cross-country journey to find herself, and Catherine Kellner attractively depicts a thoughtful, if easily hurt, artistically inclined stripper that gets caught between Eddie and Phil.

Better still is Parker Posey as Darlene, the woman who gets passed between Eddie and Mickey. Though well-known for her eclectic, quirkily comic film performances in movies like Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, Posey here displays impressive dramatic talent as a luscious and emotionally imposing temptress. She's mature, yes, but also kittenish and wounded, and as Posey piles layers of nuanced subtlety on her naturally unabashed extroversion, she becomes the most dynamic and watchable person onstage.

Of course, the way she and her personality fill out the slinky black dress that costume designer Jeff Mahshie has given her in the first act doesn't hurt. But she and Hawke do happily make you forget that the play's once sharp edges have been dulled simply by the passage of time, and when Darlene and Eddie grapple and grope through their sensually comic, emotional-baggage-loaded sex scene, everything that transpires - both spoken and unspoken - makes the perceptions and dramatic acuity of this Hurlyburly feel refreshingly up to date.

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The New Group
Hurlyburly
Through March 5
Running Time: Approximately 3 hours, with one 10-minute intermission
Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Schedule and Tickets: 212.279.4200