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Rag and Bone

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

David Wohl and Michael Chernus.
Photo by Sandra Coudert.

Of the many weapons, both physical and imaginary, employed during the interminable 105-minute running time of Rag and Bone, perhaps the most vicious is the symbol. So often does playwright Noah Haidle employ this device that it seems as if not merely every line of dialogue but also the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater itself are encased in a giant pair of quotation marks.

A ladder to heaven. A poet who cannot feel. An aspiring businessman who traffics in human hearts. A money-minded, soul-bereft millionaire. There's even the requisite prostitute with a heart of gold who, in a daring twist, has a pimp with a heart of platinum. Not a single thing here is either what it appears to be or only what it appears to be, except for the script itself, which resembles and is an Adam Rapp play without the brutal creative imagination behind it. Two of this play's actors, Michael Chernus and Matthew Stadelmann, even appeared in the last Rattlestick production, which was (coincidentally?) Rapp's own American Sligo.

That they're playing nearly identical characters here, and not nearly as well, is the least of the show's troubles. Far more damaging is that Rag and Bone is the laziest kind of theatrical writing, that which confuses meaning with content and ends up with none of either.

Haidle faced a similar problem in his 2005 play Mr. Marmalade, in which a young girl warped by daytime television coped with a fantasy life far removed from the innocence we normally associate with childhood. Yet even in those bizarre surroundings, there were occasional moments of quiet and insight, when the dangers of trying to escape into an imaginary world were driven home with arresting clarity. Rag and Bone attempts to cover the same basic territory, but without possessing 10 consecutive seconds of dramatic or emotional honesty. As a result, its central sextet of woozy idealists resemble actual human beings in appearance only.

Henry Stram and Matthew Stadelman.
Photo by Sandra Coudert.

The six caricatures in search of an author comprise the prostitute (Deirdre O'Connell) and her pimp (Kevin Jackson), the poet (Henry Stram), the millionaire (David Wohl), and the two brothers who own The Ladder Store (Chernus and Stadelmann) and are intent on helping the others get where they want to go. Chernus plays heart dealer George, who steals his inventory from elementary school teachers, public defenders, and even the poet, but also kept the one that belonged to the now-deceased mother that brother Jeff so adored. Of course nearly all of this is of some theoretical or metaphysical importance.

But except for vague references to problematic mother-son relationships and the stop-the-presses revelation that we tend to miss people when they die, there are no messages in Rag and Bone. There are just piles of cheap excuses for characters to walk around spouting aphorisms like "That's what the heart's meant to do: break" and "This whole world is cold once we're out of our mamas," and a second act that does nothing more than ramblingly restate Haidle's countless, pointless points.

None of this makes for much of an acting showcase, though Stram and Jackson burnish their dullish enough to distinguish them partially from their indistinct surroundings. O'Connell, too, is fun to watch, but I'm positive I've seen her pull all these same tricks before - her particular brand of cynically bemused distraction was time-tested three shows ago, and is not particularly organic to her character here. Nor is Chernus's laid-back-hippy take on George (and eventually George's mother, in the play's most fraught development), or adult Stadelmann's unbearable interpretation of Jeff as an eight-year-old sufferer of Asperger syndrome.

In fairness, one can't really blame the actors, or even director Sam Gold, whose restless, mad-scientist-style staging further ensures the pieces won't come together. They're doing what they can in service of a show that can't come alive onstage because it can't come alive at all: Rag and Bone is a work that more than any in recent memory was written to be pondered but not played, analyzed but not enjoyed, significant but not substantive. Haidle's masturbatory exercise in metaphorical tedium achieves its only goal of getting you thinking, but only about all the more productive ways you could be spending your time.

Rag and Bone
Through December 16
Rattlestick Theatre, 224 Waverly Place
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: SmartTix

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