As silly a plot device as time travel can be, there’s an element to it that works well on stage. The same setting can take on new dimensions hundreds of years apart, which Spooky Action Theater and playwright Barbara Wiechmann grasp particularly well in the world premiere of Last of the Whyos. The fact that New York’s Coney Island, after 100 years, beats with a new variation of the same kitschy grime is why this mashup of Gangs Of New York, Freaks, Rip Van Winkle, and religious commentary works as slippery dream theater, even though it never stops feeling like an amusement park sideshow.
Director Rebecca Holderness’ Coney Island seems to be in a limbo between waking and dreaming, a land where all its denizens hover, and where Spooky Action productions so often find themselves. Eddie Farrell (Michael Kevin Darnall in a killer Irish brogue) is a Whyos gangster at the peak of his powers who goes to sleep in the late 1800s, the twilight years of Five Points gang rule. Backlit by a video loop of the boardwalk, and flanked by stage designer Vicki Davis’s creaky wooden planks and posts, he suddenly shudders like a marionette. He wakes up adrift in 1987, at the feet of a circus sideshow trio.
But long before Eddie’s quantum leap, odd visions and restless nights interrupt his usual street rumbles. “My body don’t stay down,” he says, and neither do his surroundings, which are best appreciated by audiences with a high tolerance for elliptical stories and enigmatic dialogue. Here’s a 20th-century lawyer (Séamus Miller) with an unhealthy obsession with his young goddaughter and no clear connection to Eddie. Here’s the devilish Whyos boss Sweeney (Randolph Curtis Rand, a bit of Bill the Butcher in him). He’s on a nebulous hunt for Eddie’s “legacy,” haunting the boardwalk, crooning folk ballads about love and sorrow across the vast expanse of time.
And here are the self-made freaks, led by the great Elliot Bales as Ruby, an alligator-skinned man with a Louisiana drawl. Bales and Darnall develop a crackling chemistry as Ruby comes to believe this washed-up deviant may actually be the second coming of Christ. Weichmann pushes her thickly drawn characters into a great many pairings, but few of them work as well as this one, perhaps because when everyone’s on a different plane of reality, establishing true connection is tough. So Tia Shearer, who plays a young free spirit with striking resemblance to someone from Eddie’s past, has some nice monologues about the familial apocalypse she escaped from, but her dialogue with others never clicks like it needs to.
Holderness captures a great melancholy among the carnival: the ramshackle peace of the hut where the sideshow crew live, the wish-washing of the hard waves beneath it all. Eddie may be the one out of his time, but the overpowering feeling is that time has eluded everyone on this beach. Costume designer Erik Teague has fun with the bowler hats of the Five Points gangs and the outrageous circus getups of the freaks. The second act meanders too much, but Wiechmann’s spell has already been cast. Last of the Whyos is a body that don’t stay down.
1810 16th St. NW. $25-$35. (202) 248-0301. spookyaction.org