The Firehouse Theatre Project opens the fall theater season with "Edmond," a punishing, provocative and often violent play written by David Mamet. And while I have to thank the people at the Firehouse for continuing to bring wonderfully challenging work to the Richmond stage scene, I have to question their wisdom in choosing this particular piece.
This scatter-gun saga of a middle-age innocent let loose in the bowels of Manhattan has little of the brutal poetry of Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross" or the incisive nuance of "Oleanna." At his best, Mamet is like Muhammad Ali was he packs a wallop but also knows the value of some fancy footwork. With "Edmond," the playwright is in Mike Tyson mode: He simply hits hard, fast and often until we're ready to give up.
The punches in this play are the 23 short scenes squeezed into just over an hour of stage time. In them, we see the schleppy Edmond Burke (Morrie Piersol) leave his wife and cross over into the dark side of the city. Initially, he's just looking to get laid, but eventually, his quest turns mythic as he searches for some humanity in the seemingly soulless sea of strangers. That he will be hurt and humbled in his journey is never in doubt. It just becomes a question of how low Mamet will go, and, trust me, this is one playwright who is not averse to plumbing the depths.
As the main course in this feast of depravity, Piersol has a heavy burden to carry on his narrow, gangly shoulders. Thankfully, he handles the load just fine. His somewhat stiff and awkward delivery suits the innocent Edmond of the early scenes well and makes his transition into the overzealous, racist and philosophical Edmond of later in the play that much more powerful.
The other members of the ensemble cast take on a series of different roles (24 in all) as the people Edmond meets during his odyssey. Women are strictly objects or victims in this play, so two talented actresses, Sara Heifetz and Stephanie Kelly, are essentially wasted here. The actor that best succeeds at making his characters real is D.L. Hopkins, particularly as Edmond's "roommate" at the show's end. His coarse lack of affect makes the show's last scene shine. Of course, Hopkins is helped along by the intense volley of dialogue in the scene, one of the few displays of Mamet's masterful language skills offered in this play.
Director Bill Patton sets the mood well, with the plaintive wails of saxophonist Glenn Wilson evoking the atmosphere of a hot and sleazy jazz club. But clumsy staging seems to have stymied Patton the sometimes-awkward scene changes often scuttle the momentum of the play just as it's gaining traction. The director made a wise choice, though, in employing lighting designer Steven Koehler, who effectively under-illuminates the proceedings.
With "Edmond," the Firehouse shows it can still shake up an audience. But those looking to be stirred as well as shaken will have to wait for FTP's next effort.
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