The play establishes Ryan's life before the injury. Ryan likes to carry around a stick - the only thing his recently deceased father left him. He and his co-worker have shouted conversations about music, cars, sex and sometimes philosophy as they try to be heard over the din of the slaughterhouse, seemingly indifferent to their bloody work. Ryan shares an apartment with Keith, who works at fast food joint Liberty Burger (home of the "Land of Plenty Special"), maxes out his credit card on home electronics, and hopes to make it big as a porn video director. And things start to change when they meet Jewel, a homeless pregnant teenager whose quirky optimism lands her some space in Keith and Ryan's apartment.
It isn't the sort of life anyone would dream of, but Ryan seems content with it - until an accident at work destroys everything. Unable to keep working, he sits on the couch all the time, hopped up on Percocet. And this is the real meat of the play - the things that go through Ryan's mind when what little happiness he might have had is taken away from him.
Bleed Rail is billed as a "dark comedy," but it's actually more of a tragedy with some funny bits in it. When broke Jewel first appears on the scene at Liberty Burger, Keith offers her some free "Prairie Rings" if she'll strip for him. The scene gets laughs, as the very-pregnant girl has to put her leg on a nearby rail to unhook her shoes, and subsequently tries to wriggle out of her panties. But there's nothing particularly funny about a pregnant teenager who has to take off her clothes in order to get some lousy fast food. There's a lot of that sort of thing in Bleed Rail: scenes that are funny, but really aren't.
The cast is uniformly solid, with particularly stand-out work by Lily Holleman as Jewel. When she asks, "What will it take?" to get what she needs, it's very clear that this girl is willing to do anything and won't hold a grudge about it. Holleman's Jewel is simultaneously vulnerable and in need of protection, but she's also a realist - and she's mesmerizing to watch whenever she's on stage. Hugo Armstrong is also memorable as "Jim the Hanger," an almost mythical slaughterhouse worker whose very reputation frightens everyone else on the line.
Birnbaum's writing is particularly good when it comes to honest, realistic dialogue between people who know each other well, and director Jessica Kubzansky keeps everyone talking over each other as they should. Susan Gratch's minimalist set (with an unmoving rail mounted with hooks always visible above the proceedings), Jeremy Pivnick's harsh lighting, and John Zalewski's slaughterhouse sounds all keep things suitably creepy without any carcasses actually being brought on stage.
Things get a bit problematic with Birnbaum's script in the second act. The explanation for why Ryan doesn't go on disability is pretty weak, and the play never offers an explanation for why he doesn't try to get work at Liberty Burger. The play then takes a huge left turn to show us what Ryan ultimately decides to do with his life, and the script rushes over some rather important plot points to get there. The result is an ending that doesn't quite seem to gel with the rest of the play, and a coda that, while effective, seems forced.
Bleed Rail runs at The Theatre @ Boston Court through June 17. For reservations and information, see www.bostoncourt.com.
The Theatre @ Boston Court presents Bleed Rail by Mickey Birnbaum. Directed by Jessica Kubzansky. Scenic Design Susan Gratch; Lighting Design Jeremy Pivnick; Costume Design Robert Prior; Sound Design John Zalewski; Properties Robyn Taylor; Production Stage Manager Rebecca Cohn; Associate Producer Joe Foster; Assistant Director Sheila Vand; Casting Michael Donovan, CSA; Publicist Aldrich & Associates; Key Art Christopher Komuro.
Photo by Ed Krieger