The subtitle of Mister Gallico is a bit misleading - "a throttling from yesteryear" suggests something at once highly violent and deeply comic. There's a fair amount of comedy in the play, to be sure, but the layers of violence present in Sam Carter's new play with music at HERE, go deep enough that you should go in expecting to be stunned and surprised, but not amused.
The title character preys on the darkest, most base fears in everyone: what happens after death, is a loved one taken care of in the afterlife, what's the best way to move on after a personal tragedy, and then exploits them for his own personal gain. The work itself would approach bleak if not for Henry Caplan's sharply precise direction, which keeps the most important elements central when they need to be, and allows breathing room as necessary. Also under Caplan's hands, Mister Gallico proves quite entertaining, despite the ever-present darkness; well-written plays have a tendency to do that.
It should be said, however, that this is no Sweeney Todd or Threepenny Opera tough it bears much in common with the look and feel of those works. The story of Mister Gallico is a small and self-contained, without many pretensions of more far-reaching overtones. And that works well for it in the cramped confines of HERE, with performers so close you can feel their hearts and fears well up in their throat as many of them confront the darkness they believe lies just beyond the grave.
And that's Gallico's game. For he, played by Jason Howard, is a swindler determined to take unsuspecting and vulnerable women for as much as he can while he can. Renting a room above a butcher shop, he lures in women who have suffered great losses and, through the powers of hypnosis and other mental trickery, pretends to heal them of their pain. When the butcher (Karl Herlinger) accidentally gets involved in the scam, it becomes clear to both that they are capable of earning a great deal more money with even more depraved tactics of deception.
That this partnership must eventually provoke violence and insanity of some sort is a foregone conclusion, and Mister Gallico doesn't disappoint in that area. Nor does Carter's score, for that matter, which captures the somewhat disjointed feel it's aiming for while still maintaining a clear sound of its own. There are a few songs (in the traditional sense) which work in the moment but aren't particularly memorable after, though the almost constant underscoring is beautiful and haunting, serving as a thread connecting everything; at times, the music is so prominent, it feels almost like another character, an omniscient observer creating the cage-like atmosphere of 19th-century New York from which these characters are incapable of escaping.
The show's design elements are similarly in sync. Meganne George's parade of period-appropriate costumes, Michael Gottlieb's harsh and unforgiving lighting, and Steven Capone's suggestive set of disconnected wall segments and curtains create a heady theatrical environment where shadows and half-seen shapes are key. Caplan loves playing with the tools at his disposal, and utilizes just about every one to the fullest.
The cast members are also treated well in his hands, only a few having major roles, yet none feeling extraneous. The give and take between the human monsters Howard and Herlinger portray is sublime, and gives Mister Gallico the raw energy it feeds upon. Tate Henderson as Clara, a young woman who becomes inextricably linked with Gallico's con, Dawn Sobczac as her mother, and Alice Moore as the woman in red who acts as a narrator-like go-between, all make their difficult characters integral to the action. Bill Connington is less successful as an inept would-be doctor whose fortunes are also tied in with Gallico's, though in slightly more cursory and less satisfactory ways that the other characters'.
If Connington's character needs a bit of polish, it's one of the few things in Mister Gallico that does. Nearly everything else has achieved its goals and succeeded at making the show less "a throttling from yesteryear" than a cool, efficient scorcher from today.
Widemouth Theater and HERE Arts Center