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The prolific Indian-Irish writer Ursula Rani Sarma’s opaque and unpleasant The Magic Tree, first staged in 2008 and only now receiving its U.S. premiere at the Keegan Theatre, feels in its tense first half like a shaky stab at emulating the work of Martin McDonagh. Although less than a decade Sarma’s senior, McDonagh casts an outsized shadow: He broke out young, then found success in movies; he remains the most famous and celebrated of the not-yet-dead Irish playwrights. His stories are frequently populated by sociopaths whose colorful turns of phrase make us laugh, and whose recognizably prosaic foibles make their violent misdeeds all the more chilling.
The Magic Tree starts off like one of McDonagh’s black comedies. A young woman traveling alone (Keegan regular Brianna Letourneau) breaks into an unoccupied house seeking shelter from a thunderstorm. (G. Ryan Smith’s strobelights provide lighting at dramatic intervals.) She peels off her wet clothes. Her name is Lamb, presumably to deepen our sense of her as a victim-in-waiting after a man hiding his face beneath a hoodie follows her inside. In the role of Gordy, Lamb’s surprisingly chatty stalker, Chris Stinson’s compact frame, baby face, and fragile demeanor all work in his favor as he tries to persuade his more-fazed-than-frightened prey not to regard him as a threat. But it’s clear before long that despite his protestations, he is one, the advance man for a trio of would-be rapists. After this early reveal, he persuades his droogs—ringleader Doc (Scott Ward Abernethy, believably contemptible), and Ryan Tumulty, playing a slow-witted animal lover named Lenny, perhaps in a nod to Of Mice and Men—to go back out into the storm and wait while he plies her with wine. When she screams, that’ll be the signal for them to barge in.
Once we know we’re watching a slow-motion prelude to a gang rape, nothing that happens seems very funny. In getting to know Lamb a little, Gordy quickly loses his stomach for ravishment. Now he must find a way to spring Lamb from the trap he himself set.
Are you buying any of this? Does this sound in any way like a reasonable facsimile of human behavior on the part of anyone involved? It’s not a pleasurable exercise, exactly, waiting around to see if or how Lamb avoids getting violated (and Doc beats her up pretty good). But you can at least understand what’s happening in this segment, and Letourneau and Stinson are both excellent.
Enumerating the second act’s shortcomings is tricky without denuding the first act of whatever suspense is left in it now that you’ve read the preceding three paragraphs. Lamb and Gordy find themselves together in Southeast Asia, far away from the cruel, wet Ireland of act one. (The Irish setting isn’t important to the story, really, though the cast clearly relishes the opportunity to practice their accents.)
Lamb seems like a wholly different person from her prior iteration, who shrunk from the vulgar gerund “fucking” and asked Gordy not to impugn her special-needs sibling. Now, she’s an emotionally numb masochist who bribes a guard so that she and Gordy will be allowed to camp out on an excavated mass grave. You know, like people do. They’re surrounded by destitute and near-naked local children—conjured up via designer Patrick Lord’s ghostly projections—who demand money, or to have their photos taken. Gordy is understandably unnerved, yet he refuses to leave Lamb behind, repeatedly comparing himself to a loyal dog. Lamb, meanwhile, insists that she feels nothing at all and wants for him to go.
This is why you have so much trouble persuading your theater-agnostic friends to give it a try.
Sound Designer Tony Angelini’s recorded voices of the children make them sound like demons: GivememoneyorIbringmyfatherhehasgun. Taken with the imposing sight of the massive, angular tree set designer Robbie Hayes has built for the second act only, it accrues into a dour flood of sensation. But it isn’t even readily discernible who is doing what to whom in The Magic Tree’s concluding moments, much less what Sarma wants us to harvest from it. The ambiguity seems wholly unintended, and The Magic Forest remains maddeningly out of view.
1742 Church St. NW. $25–$36. (202) 265-3767. keegantheatre.com.