Bingo with the Indians

bingoSo many new plays these days are painfully short of substance, with the only reason to see them being the top-notch efforts of the city’s endless supply of talented actors. Adam Rapp is one of the few exceptions to the lazy playwright rule. His plays, from Stone Cold Dead Serious to Red Light Winter to Essential Self-Defense, are always so multi-layered, intricate, and intelligent that multiple viewings seem necessary. Fortunately, the stories he tells and the characters he tells them through are always so interesting that the idea of seeing the shows again is far from a problem.

Bingo with the Indians, Rapp’s latest, which he is also directing, is a fine example of this. The show barrels forward at viewers, Rapp’s smart dialogue firing on all cylinders, and for every given moment there are at least two ways to understand what’s going on. At times the plot and writing feel a little too raw and unfiltered, and it could certainly use some reshaping, but at least this “problem” is an excess of things to say. It’s a refreshing contrast with other playwrights who keep saying the same thing they and others have said thousands of times. After watching Bingo, one feels exhausted by all that has gone on and by the great intensity with which the actors perform – but one also feels invigorated.

Though it runs with no intermission, Bingo is in three distinct parts, or rather two parts with one of them sandwiched between the beginning and end of the other. In the opening sequence, three members of a downtown New York theater troupe are holed up in a motel in a rural town in New Hampshire. The director, Dee (Jessica Pohly), and an actor, Stash (Cooper Daniels, above right [photo: Joan Marcus]) banter with what seems mostly playful, purposefully over-the-top hostility as the stage manager, Wilson (Rob Yang), half-listens. In this way the audience learns that the three need money in order to put on a play, and they plan to steal the money from the local church’s bingo game that night; Dee grew up in the town, so knows what a big deal the game is and that they’ll clear a nice sum this way.

After this introductory scene, the son of the motel owners, Steve (Evan Enderle, above left), stops by with the trio’s rental car keys. He exudes boyish excitement when he finds out that the three are in theatre and from New York, but this eagerness verging on desperation doesn’t charm the others, hard-bitten cynics that they are, the way it might some in the audience: Stash in particular quickly explodes in anger and irritation at Steve’s hopeful ingenuousness. The hostility that seemed harmless when directed toward Dee in the form of colorful insults that she cheerfully returned now turns quite alarming. But that convincing danger passes quickly, as Stash and Dee exit to carry out the heist, leaving Steve alone with Wilson, who for some reason isn’t participating.

The long scene that follows is comprised almost entirely of their interaction, and though it seems like an interlude at first, it actually takes up the bulk of the play, pressing on even as you wonder what’s going on at the church and expect to be shown some of that action. Instead Rapp has Wilson draw Steve out of his awkwardness, into a kind of play rehearsal that soon develops into a fairly hardcore sexual encounter. Wilson, who had been the flat, unanimated member of the trio before, becomes a soft-spoken tyrant in Yang’s understated performance. Still, though the length (and central positioning) of the section indicate that Rapp intended it to be pivotal, it is hard to get into it and pay attention properly because the fast pace of the opening has ensured that one’s thoughts are always half with Dee and Stash, expecting to see them again any moment.

When Dee and Stash do finally return (in the event, they won the bingo jackpot and didn’t have to steal anything) they are accompanied by a woman whom Dee met at the lesbian table at bingo. “Jackson” (Corinne Donly) turns out to be Steve’s very recent girlfriend, and he goes into a state of shock at her sudden transformation into a butch nose-, nipple-, and clit-pierced chick. She is joining up with the troupe, heading out to New York that night – the very escape that Steve earlier told Wilson he would like to make. But the gulf between Steve and his ex, and Steve and the others, just gapes wider as he is unable to leave his old self and become a new character who can participate in the company’s visceral, immediate performances that muddle the line between reality and theatre – such as when they begin to beat Stash, who has passed out after going into a frenzy fuelled by cocaine he bought with the bingo money that was supposed to be for their play. They kick and pound him to a pulp, but throughout the violence it is clear that they are playing a part, they are performing as actors inside the play and under normal circumstances would be appalled at such behavior. Not that this makes it any less real for Stash, of course, which is part of the point.

Though Steve becomes “Slash” in the playlet he reads with Wilson when the others leave, a crucial point of Bingo is that he never receives another name, one for the theatrical alternate universe that the troupe is creating, where Stash is Brick, Dee is Big Daddy, and Wilson is Mulldoon. Steve tries to give his all in the reading with Wilson, but he never really becomes his character; later he is unable to bring himself to join in Stash’s beating. Interestingly, this lameness just makes Steve more sympathetic; one might expect Rapp, a man of theatre, to be disdainful of someone who can’t live it as fully as Dee and Stash seem to, yet by the end of Bingo their blurring of the boundaries of life and acting is what seems pathetic and cowardly. It also helps that Enderle is so powerful as Steve – paradoxically, he inhabits the character and makes him real and alive on the stage in exactly the way Steve fails to do.

So much happens on the play’s surface that Bingo’s real aim, providing sharp commentary on the excesses of certain wings of the theatre world, takes a bit too long to become clear. Rapp’s characters and writing are so engrossing, even when some of his inventions (such as the lesbian table at bingo night) don’t make sense, and he has directed the actors so well, that it’s easy just to watch their antics without realizing what else is going on, which makes the ending hit like a Mack truck. With some pruning and refocusing, the play’s punch would be stronger, but even at this early stage it is exciting to see and encouraging to know that there are good new plays being written. - Mallory Jensen

Bingo with the Indians runs through December 22, Tuesday - Saturday at 9pm with 7pm shows December 2, 9 & 16. The Flea Theater is located at 41 White Street (between Broadway & Church Streets).

mallory.jpgMs. Jensen is a writer in New York who works in book publishing when she is not attending an indie play/film/concert.