Also see Bob's review of Red
Bizarre absurdism, the kind you used to get from Ionesco or Beckett, reaches horrifying new heights in the world premiere of David L. Williams' new two-act play. That's due, in part, to the territory mined, and to leading lady Shanara Gabrielle, as one half of a couple that's just won an exceedingly large sum of money in the lottery. As Cassie, Ms. Gabrielle's excited charm gradually turns to furious hauteur, and the mad glint in her eye propels the second half to a soul-flaying conclusion. By the final, hellish blackout, she's still alive, but a modern Lady Macbeth (as made-over by Ann Taylor).
I don't want to give too much away, but The Winners also serves as a surprisingly good bridge between the current local productions of Debbie Does Dallas and Falling, at Non-Prophet and Mustard Seed theatres, respectively. Well, I suppose this show is more of a "roundabout" than a "bridge," linking the other two up (at least, tangentially) through a series of stomach-turning plot twists.
Director Marty Stanberry kicks off the action with the hilarious introduction of Sasha Diamond as an Asian prostitute. She's been hired to fulfill one of Cassie's college-era sex fantasies, and Shaun Sheley is the very eager husband, serving as a sometimes-enabler between these two strong-willed women. All three are excellent, but it's Ms. Gabrielle who carries the greatest load with the most startling conviction and excitement. Groans of dread wafted across the audience as her plans gradually became clear on opening night. But there's no denying the power that she and Mr. Stanberry develop to create a sense of suburban imperialism, in the face of some very anguished expectations.
The really strange thing about The Winners is how innocent and charmingly naïve the married couple is at the outset, and how deeply they get themselves in in a great big hurry, in spite of their gnawing doubts. The story is so smoothly developed, in fact, that it's not till the last 20 minutes or so that we realize that we are clawing our way up a nearly vertical cliff of unbearable shame and avarice. Ms. Diamond is wily and self-assured (as Tiffany), seizing control now and then. And it's compelling and grotesque to watch the middle-class couple beginning to relish their newfound powers-of-the-purse, sometimes treating their "guest" as a rebellious teenager, and sometimes as a scheming psychopath. You can take The Winners as a metaphor for imperial colonialism, or a vicious juxtaposition of two brash kinds of modern American women, but (in spite of the clever comedic flourishes) you won't be able to take it lightly.
It's also an artful indictment of a vaguely Victorian style of affluent middle-aged Americans, who are quietly pleased to be on top in the world, but eternally anxious about the prospects for sudden decline. The internal tug-of-war between these opposing sentiments works itself out as an authoritarian nightmare before turning into something even worse in the end.
Not for children. Through September 24, 2011, at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand, two blocks north of Lindell Blvd. For more information visit them on-line at www.hotcitytheatre.org or call (314) 289-4063.
* Denotes member, Actors Equity Association