At one crucial point late in Brett Neveu’s odd but engrossing new dark comedy, Jim McKee, the pompous acting teacher played by Michael Shannon, quotes a stage direction from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? “Gazing into her drink,” he says, attributing it to Albee’s description of Martha. “That’s what Desmond is doing—he’s gazing into his drink.”
This is only one of dozens of quotations that Jim and his wife, the equally grandiloquent psychotherapist Melissa (Kirsten Fitzgerald), lob at each other over the course of a fraught Thanksgiving. Everything from O’Neill to August: Osage County gets namechecked, alongside long passages from Melissa’s favorite psychology texts. But you’ve sort of been waiting for the Woolf to prowl in. Neveu’s four-person play suggests nothing so much as if a more affectionate, but no less volatile, George and Martha had actual children to ruin over a lifetime instead of a Nick and Honey to terrorize for a single night.
Their daughter, Rania (Charlotte Mae Ellison), is a high school senior and seven months pregnant, having chosen to keep the baby after surviving the bombing of the abortion clinic she had visited. (This family’s tendency toward proximity to disaster and tragedy, we’ll learn, is enough to fuel the next several seasons of Serial and The Jinx alike.) The family members bicker and banter while awaiting the arrival of son Desmond (Ryan Bourque), off at college studying soil science—which, in the off-kilter world of the play, also includes studies in soil poetry and soil science fiction.
The McKees make a habit of drawing up family contracts—documents that are literal and binding, and often distinguish those topics that will become family stories from those that will never be spoken of again. Those topics that remain acceptable are told and retold in self-service, with no regard for others. (Melissa has a tic of bringing her patients’ deepest secrets into every conversation, using their full names at every reference.) And one of the subjects that eventually calls for a contract tonight concerns the provenance of Rania’s baby.
Shannon, back at his theatrical home base, gets to employ his unnerving weirdo intensity in the service of comedy, as he rarely gets to do in his screen roles. He and Fitzgerald, who deftly conveys a combination of touchy-feely and bull-in-a-china-shop, are a hoot together. Bourque and Ellison get their own moments to shine in Shade Murray’s staging, which could possibly benefit from a little more calm; right now, three quarters of the show is dialed up to 11. But if Neveu’s comedy is heightened, its pilgrims make you want to follow their trek.
A Red Orchid Theatre. By Brett Neveu. Directed by Shade Murray. With Michael Shannon, Kirsten Fitzgerald, Ryan Bourque, Charlotte Mae Ellison. Running time: 2hrs; one intermission.