Nearly Naked Theatre has a tendency to comb through the oeuvres of solid contemporary playwrights and bring us productions of their earliest works, some of which hold up better than others. If you appreciate writer David Lindsay-Abaire mostly from his comparatively serious, Pulitzer-winning Rabbit Hole, presented in Phoenix by Actors Theatre in 2009 and subsequently made into a Nicole Kidman film, NNT's current A Devil Inside will seem quite odd (not necessarily a bad thing). Even lined up against Lindsay-Abaire's other more reckless, nearly absurd scripts -- such as Fuddy Meers or Wonder of the World -- 1997's Devil is obviously the product of a younger, less deft author.
And that doesn't have to be a drawback, either. Performances, direction, and design elevate this production to a clever, entertaining experience that's true to the dark, cathartic comedy inherent in Russian literature, a genre that contributes to the play's subject matter, motifs, and structure. (Of several spittingly funny moments, my favorite was when one character bursts in upon another and exclaims, "If I didn't have a motive, I'd kill you!")
Hero Gene Slater is a just-turned-21 man whose majority is the occasion chosen by his mother to share the truth about his father's death 14 years before (it was not a heart attack). Although one of the script's mysteries is why slacker Gene is in college at all, his enrollment in Russian lit is the linchpin that drives a whirl of tightening connections among the characters, coincidences which, though contrived and ridiculous, are far from unrealistic.
Damon Dering's cast plays this group of loonies as though the stakes are life and death, and they are. But there's a glaze of bigger-than-lifeness to the portrayals that's appropriate for a show in which you're never sure whether a laundromat where nothing ever gets clean is a potent symbol or just one of those things.
All the performances are simultaneously strong and subtle, but Shari Watts stands out as Mrs. Slater, a lady whom we believe when she bellows, "Avenge your footless father!" but who also provokes uncontrollable laughter when she happens to burst into sobs while lying face-down on a skateboard that happens to be tied around her neck. Pat Russel, an experienced sketch comedian, is a titan of insanity as Gene's professor, Carl, and Matthew Ryan Harris takes his battles with an invisible demon to breathtaking levels of physical control.
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It's also a great pleasure to see Kaleena Newman, who was amazing as a little boy in Stray Cat Theatre's Milk Milk Lemonade a couple of seasons back, as Caitlin, a classmate of Gene's who is, in enthusiastic young-woman fashion, provocative when she doesn't mean to be and vice versa. Caitlin's self-staged entrance with fur jacket and cigarette holder, near the action's climax, is hysterical and heartbreaking.
Lindsay-Abaire has never been able to tease out the tangled strands of humor and despair, and one of his greatest strengths as a playwright is that he knows better than to even try. The human condition is a conjoined twinship of silly and tragic. While A Devil Inside is full of violence, smoking, crime, penises, bad ideas, and other things unsuitable for children, it's as good an illustration of that life lesson, when thoughtfully presented as it is here, as any of his later scripts.
A Devil Inside continues through Saturday, September 14, at Phoenix Theatre's Little Theatre, 100 East McDowell Road. Call 602-254-2151 or visit www.tickets.phoenixtheatre.com.