Review: 'American Sligo' wrestles with itself


Special to Newsday

September 25, 2007

Many Off-Broadway playwrights write the stage equivalent of chamber music, with a few well-modulated voices in counterpoint and the reassuring cadences of comedy or drama.

Not Adam Rapp. This prolific writer-director, whose "American Sligo" is the second of three premiere productions he'll rack up this year, plays theatrical punk-rock. He's got a rock star's come-hither blend of effrontery and vulnerability, showmanship and edge. He has more talent than taste. He also has the regrettable habit of smashing his guitar when he gets bored with the tune.

And, clearly, Rapp isn't about to write his crossover pop hit. Invited uptown to Playwrights Horizons earlier this year, he delivered "Essential Self-Defense," a splashy, perversely structured Middle American fantasia that won few converts. A play about a theater company descending on a small town, "Bingo With the Indians," opens at the Flea Theatre in November.

In the meantime, Rapp fans will have to content themselves with "American Sligo," a brief, almost gripping family drama that touches some genuine emotional depths before hurtling off a familiar cliff of oddity and brutality.

A pathetic young wrestling fan, Bobby (Matthew Stadelmann), has won the "Crazy Train" sweepstakes, which means he gets to sit down to dinner with aging professional wrestler Art "Crazy Train" Sligo (Guy Boyd) on the night of his farewell bout.

Some prize: the chance to witness what's left of the dissipated Sligo clan bicker and natter over a rubber-chicken dinner. It's served up by Aunt Bobbie (Marylouise Burke), a relentlessly cheery chatterbox trying desperately to fill the void left by her late sister, Art's wife.

Heavy-bellied Art, who presides at the table in full wrestling regalia and mullet wig, proves a strangely recessive authority figure. He's upstaged by the internecine battle between Aunt Bobbie and his two adult sons: the exasperated troglodyte Kyle (Michael Chernus) and mean-spirited, diabetic drug abuser Victor (Paul Sparks).

Sounds like a barrel of laughs, no? For most of its running time, actually, "American Sligo" goes down with the agreeable tang and tickle of cheap beer, even as it gently threatens the heartburn that is to come.

Before long, it reaches a bitter, laughter-choking impasse between Aunt Bobbie and Victor, as his brand of homegrown insult comedy crosses the line and she lashes back, maddeningly but movingly, with still more kindness. As acted beautifully by Burke and the magnetic Sparks, this moment is not the work of a callow punk but of a budding theatrical master.

Alas, the same can't be said for the implausible, queasy muddle that follows, or the cheap pathos invoked by a pair of thankless girlfriends, played by Emily Cass McDonnell and Megan Mostyn-Brown.

And Stadelmann's fan-boy character doesn't add up. Professional wrestling may fill an aching void in some unfortunate American souls, but does even the most credulous fan believe the choreographed violence is real? Rapp suffers from a similar confusion: He mistakes his jolting stage stunts for theatrical truths.

AMERICAN SLIGO. Written and directed by Adam Rapp. Through Oct. 14 at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. 224 Waverly Place, Manhattan. For tickets, call 212-868-4444. Seen Thursday.