Oct. 11, 2004


Mystery Training

Sex, Danger and Cynicism at the Evidence Room


by Rob Kendt



Eric Overmyer's Dark Rapture is a genre exercise that works some unfamiliar muscle groups. It looks and acts like a contemporary noir thriller, but there's a curiously teasing indirection about its unraveling mystery, as if it's got much deeper, darker secrets up its sleeve, and the plot we're trying to follow may be only a diversion from the real game.


We never quite figure out what that game is, though. Hints of a wider, possibly even geopolitical conspiracy flicker at the edges of the play's central insurance/identity scam, but they remain flickers. And for audiences accustomed to the storytelling sleight-of-hand of such latter-day noir films as The Usual Suspects or Red Rock West, even the delightfully trashy Wild Things, the twists and revelations of the Dark Rapture's final scenes will feel unsatisfying.


Still, director Larry Biederman's stylish new production at the Evidence Room strikes the right chords of sex, danger, and cynicism. Most impressively, it moves on, around, and under Keith Mitchell's imposing, abstract set with as much surety and surprise as anything in the script, conjuring new locales and spaces with a minimum of fuss--a fair theatrical approximation of the quick-cut cinematic scope of the narrative, as it swoops up and down both coasts, from the Bay Area to Cabo San Lucas, Seattle to Key West.


We start at the scene of a raging hillside fire, approximated chillingly by Craig Pierce's lights and John Zalewski's crackling sound. Two apparent strangers look on and exchange enigmatic small talk about natural disasters, though one of them, Ray (Nick Offerman), is openly exhilarated by the hellish spectacle--especially, it seems, at the sight of what is probably his own house up in flames. The other man, a bald cipher named Babcock (David Mersault), has a murkier relationship to the premises.


Indeed, the mysterious Babcock would seem to be the play's throughline. While a plot unfolds that may involve Ray and his philandering film producer wife Julia (Katy Selverstone) pulling an elaborate swindle of millions from a pair of gangsters (Don Oscar Smith, Dylan Kenin), the taciturn Babcock--not, of course, his real name--keeps turning up in the most unlikely places, either in person or by proxy.


Also armed and implicated are a pair of angry Armenian thugs (Christian Anderson, Jeffrey Johnson), whose main dramatic function appears to be to terrorize an unfortunate used-car dealer (Mersault again), whose Turkish heritage proves an intolerable provocation. In a scene of senseless intimidation that's among the play's most effectively suspenseful, we're rattled especially by political and ethnic overtones that suggest another layer of plot intrigue. But no: This discordant riff has no bassline.


The same goes for the sultry Renee (Sarah Sido), whose postcoital rap with Ray includes a whopper of a confession that veers into James Ellroy territory. But for all the jaundiced, world-weary speeches he gives his jetsetting characters, Overmyer lacks the rabid, unseemly relish for the inevitable worst that distinguishes genuinely paranoid noir from garden-variety hardboiled mystery.


Director Biederman has a knockout cast who will certainly find more seamless rhythms among themselves than they had reached on their slightly querulous opening weekend. As the closely guarded Ray, the quizzical Offerman gives few line readings that are not either suspicious or ironic; as his estranged wife, Selverstone is all angles and sharp lines, even when she's ostensibly letting her hair down with a Hollywood boy toy (Johnson). In short, these are characters we wouldn't trust with our house keys, let alone our lives, for an hour.


Untrustworthy, unpredictable characters invariably make interesting theatrical company. Maybe that's why the ending leaves us frustrated: The somewhat prosaic mystery that gets solved isn't the mystery we've been wondering about.