The Redheaded Man
Monsters in the Wood
Forget about the death rituals of other cultures - just understanding the way different Americans cope with the end of life can be a full-time occupation. But it doesn’t have to be an entirely somber one: Brad Lawrence proves in his one-man show Monsters in the Wood that death can indeed be a laughing matter.
Well, sort of. Lawrence’s tale of growing up in self-destructive Southern Missouri, which has been suavely directed by Burke Heffner, is rife with ironic commentary about the “good ol’ boys” who were his family and friends, and the time-bomb life he narrowly escaped. He finds plenty of humor in rattling off the torrid details of his relations’ relationships, how they affected him, and how he affected them in return, his straight-backed, aloof manner and deadpan delivery providing dizzy and ditzy contrast to the background he claims but suppresses with every impeccably chosen vowel he utters.
Lawrence can’t, however, ignore or hide the undercurrents of disappointment, pain, and loss that have led him to this point, and it’s those that give him and his play the humanity that identifies them as something more than self-concerned ramblings of a reformed redneck. Even Monsters in the Wood’s funniest moments are tinged with an inky bleakness paying heed to the mortality his upbringing so openly taunted. Lawrence opens the play at a double funeral, then expounds on the lives of the deceased and those closest to them - and then on those people’s deaths as well. For those Lawrence knew in the Ozarks, death wasn’t just the end of life - it was the way of life.
For many, the political implications will be obvious. But Lawrence avoids addressing them directly, and instead focuses on the personal details that give him the authority he needs to define himself as (in the words of a troubled girlfriend) “always a stranger in a strange land.” Of course that’s what he is. But his story terrifies as it entertains because it reminds you that on some level, none of us is any better: However we may appear on the outside, we’re all running from something, to something, or perhaps in circles. If dying is hard and comedy hard, being honest about yourself must be downright impossible. Lawrence, however, makes all the three appear equally effortless - and important.
Running Time: 1 hour
There’s no tangible evidence that Halley Bondy intended her play The Redheaded Man to argue in favor of overmedication. In fact, the opposite would appear to be the case, as lead character Brian (David Jenkins) is a brilliant architect under the effects of a dangerous drug prescribed him by his psychiatrist (Michele Sims), a puppet of Big Pharmaceutical. But when a play this scattered receives a production (directed by Jessica Fisch) this scattershot, who can say for sure?
This is all ostensibly an exploration of the lingering effects of childhood psychological trauma. But as it’s by turns preachy and cutesy, it’s never informative or entertaining as it covers Brian’s social and sexual awakening as he battles his own foggy past and a tormenting tagalong spirit (the title character, played by Bruce Bluette) that only that debilitating drug can placate. Unfortunately, all that gets lost in a tangle of unfocused subplots that climax in screaming fits, suicide attempts, and relationship brinksmanship with both Brian’s roommate and surrogate brother Jonathan (James Edward Shippy) and the psychiatrist’s assistant, Lydia (Bondy herself), whose own motives might stretch beyond clinical purity.
Some interesting ideas materialize - most notably, the use of quick-change video clips to document Brian’s unusual psychosis (he can see people’s emotions and internal physical ailments) - but they’re overshadowed by ham-fisted characterizations, from both playwright and actors. Jenkins is the most insufferable, his portrayal of intellectual instability clearly modeled on Andy Dick’s stand-up comedy routines but without the finer nuances, though Sims is not much better as his unfeeling overseer, looking and sounding as though iced coffee spiked with Everclear is flowing through her veins.
Bondy turns in the most delicate and watchable performance, finding in Lydia a sexy secretiveness that keeps you guessing about her true nature until almost the end of the play. Whether slouching in the psychiatrist’s shadow or shining her own light on the always-in-the-dark Brian, Bondy looks and sounds far smarter and more real than she allows anyone else to be. Her Lydia is so complex on her own, one can’t help but wonder why Bondy didn’t structure The Redheaded Man more soberly around her, instead of creating a confusing mess of a show that’s essentially a living advertisement for Prozac.
Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes