If there's one thing New City Stage proved in the local professional debut of David Rabe's massive, messy, but brilliant Hurlyburly, it's that there are infinite ways to play Hollywood movieland denizens on the skids. But some are better than others.
The three-hour play is loaded with truths about the pre-celebrity-detox, pre-AIDS 1980s. It's a searing descendant of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with the chatty narrative of August Wilson.
This drama about four movie-biz guys wrestling with chaotic relationships past and present (and mostly failing) is at its considerable best when opening a window on alternate paranoid realities fueled by drugs and enabled by like-minded company.
When you emerge the wiser after absorbing the play's appalling truths - and remembering the brilliant writing (for drug-induced memory loss, "biodegradable moments") - the production has been successful. And this one is, despite questionable staging decisions that may make more sense as it settles into its run at the Adrienne Theatre.
On the plus side, key actors have personalized their roles well. Phil, a loose cannon whose dependence on women has violent manifestations, can seem like a cousin to Lennie in Of Mice and Men; Paul Felder makes him a lean, tightly wound paragon of control. As Mickey, Robert Smythe has many of the best lines, and he deserves them with his characterization of drug-transcending intelligence.
As the main character, Eddie, Russ Widdall displays considerable resources, handling large amounts of language and solving technical problems like balancing a gun, a newspaper, and a bottle while acting stoned. But from his first scene, Widdall's character already has lost veneer and sunk so low you can't see how he's successful enough to afford all that cocaine. With so much stage time, he needs more contour.
Also, director James J. Christy isn't good to the female characters. They anchor the play, but their humanity is masked by all-too-cheap exteriors. Even Christie Parker's Darlene, who has emerged from a breakdown to have a high-functioning life, looks vulgar. The aging professional slut Bonnie, played with desperate aggression by Mary Lee Bednarek, lacks the ironic detachment that makes her marginal life tolerable. And as randy drifter Donna, Sarah Van Auken is too reactive to be the survivor that she is.
Not huge problems, but ones you might notice less with a play that doesn't get so far under your skin.