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Now, in the wake of last season’s tragically funny Howie the Rookie, comes another Rashomon-meets-Ulysses yarn from that black-hearted, big-hearted bastard Mark O’Rowe: Three women, three monologues, three perspectives on one particularly savage day lived by characters too rococo to exist—except that they all, in the contemporary Ireland of O’Rowe’s imagination, indelibly do. To say that people act beastly in the world of Crestfall is to understate the case; one of O’Rowe’s women famously has an intimate encounter with a three-eyed dog. And that’s not anywhere near the limits of where the playwright, with his braying rhymes and his jeering, joyfully vulgar word-painting, wants to take you if you’re willing. Limits? Crestfall blows past limits, past what you ever imagined you’d be willing to stomach onstage, into something startlingly, suddenly pure.
Start with Olive, the sex fiend with the spineless husband and the alpha-pimp lover. Picture Jennifer Mendenhall—she hasn’t been this cheerfully raunchy since Woolly Mammoth’s Lenny and Lou—in a tight skirt and merciless boots, hand-holding you through a first-person, present-tense chronicle of a rousing bang that shades into a reminiscence of bygone frolics. Imagine the moment ending badly, her guilty partner unable to finish it off—weepy thoughts of his wife, y’know. Imagine what else you learn about Olive as she makes her way out of the fleabag, back toward home and the mild-mannered man whose mildness she, with her voraciousness, in this unforgiving milieu, has come to despise. Imagine the child he thinks is his.
We never meet him, but that man’s mildness, his manifold humiliations, will have to do with the apocalypse that lies in wait at the end of this 85-minute hallucination. First, though, meet the man with the goiter and his three-eyed dog; meet Alison (Kimberly Schraf), the wan, withdrawn wife of the guilty lout in the hotel. Hear about the drunken discovery that led to the bedroom chill between them; hear about her damaged kid; hear the nightmare tale she tells of the revenge her husband and a mob take on a horse that may have had something to do with the damage.
It’s hideous, that stretch is, all too believably brutal and painted in language plain and vivid enough to make you think you’ve seen the whole gruesome spectacle splashed in silver-gray rain and blue-black blood on a 40-foot screen—when of course you’ve been upstairs at the Studio Theatre, with only three actresses, a strip of floor, a wall or two for one or another to lean against. Joy Zinoman knows not to get in O’Rowe’s way, so she keeps her production uncluttered and minimalist: Brandee Mathies supplies suitable costuming, and Gil Thompson’s lights offer subtle support for shifts of time and place, but I’m damned if I can remember anything about Thompson’s sound design, which means it did its work unobtrusively and well.
Alison’s monologue concludes with a moment of peace that’s all the sweeter for its rarity in O’Rowe’s world, and at the end she stands, “rifts repaired, transgressions forgiven,” promising the mother’s eternal promise of vigilance and giving the play its name: “Keep we three sheltered, shielded in our union from catastrophe approaching, surrounding, encroaching upon us in this insidious vicinity, this savage quarter, this perpetual crestfall.” If that sounds foreboding, well, yes: The story of Tilly (Mari Howells), the heroin-fueled whore with the abortion-scarred plumbing and the empty feeling, will loop inevitably back to knot up loose threads from the first two narratives, and the floors will run red before it’s done.
And then, suckers, Crestfall delivers its last punch: A gorgeous little coda, all innocence and redemption, that offers what would certainly be hope in any ordinary world. This is O’Rowe’s world, of course, and the Madonna with that newly orphaned child has track marks, so who knows what might happen once the moment passes—but in that moment, anyway, everything seems illuminated, and you leave shaking your head at the awful beauty of all that’s passed.
Orange Flower Water grounds itself in more familiar territory—Minnesota, in fact, where two unhappy couples discover that happiness doesn’t necessarily consist in getting what you think you want—but it doesn’t feel nearly as true.
Craig Wright’s messy little four-way flirts with real feeling now and again, and it threatens once or twice to say something honest about romantic expectations and the realities of long-term togetherness. But it keeps getting distracted—by a showy moment for a barbecuing brute, or an extended, isn’t-that-provocative bout of breakup sex between a waffling husband and a steely, angry wife—and losing track of its clear-eyed take on the complexity of human relationships.
Cesar Guadamuz and Dana Edwards do sharply etched work as cheated-upon spouses Brad and Cathy—Guadamuz, in particular, creates a satisfying portrait of a bully collapsing in on himself—but the script, perhaps understandably, keeps pushing them to the sidelines. And at the story’s center, the balance is undeniably off: Frank Britton’s perfunctory David, all surfaces and hurried diction, proves an insufficient emotional counterweight for the raw, deeply melancholic Beth of Helen Pafumi, who moves her character carefully, moment to anguished moment, discovering fresh little flashes of joy and fear and outrage with each new development.
Still, director Patrick Crowley steers his quartet efficiently enough through the play’s contrivances, and toward the end their efforts pay off: There’s a terrible passion in Beth’s awakening to the ruination of the choice David has coaxed her into making. And David’s own final speech, about discovering a little grace amid the rubble of bad decisions, carries enough of the playwright’s conviction to make it feel almost—for this world, like O’Rowe’s, makes precious few promises—like a hopeful thing.CP