Yule Grinner

For the past decade or so, our local theater season has kicked off with a musical comedy rerun, courtesy of Phoenix Theatre Company. This year, upstart Ensemble Theatre has upstaged PT's tradition by launching its first full season with a swell production of a crafty Craig Lucas comedy.

Reckless, which opened two full weeks before PT's upcoming retread of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, is a black comedy about the dark underbelly of Christmas -- and just about everything else as well. In nearly 30 quick scenes, Reckless repeats a single joke: A series of fortunate coincidences is followed by a disaster that occurs on Christmas Eve. It's the same movement over and over, with no thread of logic running through, and it takes place in a darker world than Lucas has created before, in plays like Prelude to a Kiss. Here, Santa is an anagram for Satan, and champagne is spiked with strychnine. No one is sane, and nobody is who he or she claims to be. People are poisoned, lied to and run out of town. We watch gleefully, with little shame, despite the fact that these folks are all losers and we should probably feel sorry for them.

Reckless opens on Christmas Eve, when Rachel (Janice Robillard) discovers that her husband has hired a hit man to kill her. She flees, and is rescued by a kindly stranger named Lloyd Bophtelophti (Mike Prindiville), who takes her home to meet his wife, Pooty (Kay Kirby), an apparent deaf-mute paraplegic. Rachel gets cozy with her adopted family, goes to work for an unpleasant not-for-profit organization, visits a series of deranged psychiatrists and wins $100,000 on a game show called "Your Mother or Your Wife?" An ill-fated reunion with her husband sends Rachel into another tailspin and back out onto the road, where she encounters more lunacy, a new cast of crackpot therapists, and, eventually, the past she abandoned in the first scene.

A comedy that relies on the threat of violence for its humor is a tough sell, and Lucas has drawn scenes that require a running start: Each one becomes more serious as it progresses, so that we and the actors are jerked quickly from comedy to drama. But firm direction and a crackerjack cast, led by local legend Robillard, make sense of Lucas's lunacy and breakneck scene structure.

Robillard's superb, rangy performance belies her 12-year absence from the stage, and had me hoping she'll return again soon. Her expressive voice and frenetic facial expressions move Rachel from an annoying nut cake to a cuddly elf in a matter of seconds. Robillard is in constant motion, injecting all 28 of her scenes with a panicked enthusiasm and raspy, nonstop chatter. (At one point, Prindiville, in one of several funny bits from his hilarious performance, shouts at Robillard, "Can we have one second of silence? Shut the fuck up!")

Kirby -- who rarely acts, preferring to work behind the scenes as Ensemble's publicist -- also turns in a fine performance as Pooty, the hearing-impaired crippled woman. In past productions of Reckless that I've seen, Pooty is an unpleasant underdog, and the bombshell she drops toward the end of the first act instantly makes her the story's villain. But Kirby has found some warmth in a character who's written as little more than a handful of welfare jokes.

The players' bogus attempt at sign language is pretty awful, and they occasionally stray into cute mannerisms and smug deliveries. But director David Vining keeps his cast mostly in hand, and, in a show that's all about pacing, keeps this terrific treadmill turning. Vining has commissioned an austere set design, expertly executed by Vonn Lamoree, that's quickly carted on and off stage by his impressive cast of supporting players.

The director knows the play's shortcomings: The wind-up is too sentimental, and, after all the darkness that precedes it, feels disingenuous and grafted-on. But Vining makes certain that almost everything leading up to it is fast-paced and funny.

All this is accomplished without forfeiting Lucas' cheerless point -- that life is chaotic and messy -- and we're left with something more: If people are merely part of a conspiracy designed to undermine our sanity, they can also be pretty darn amusing while they're at it.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela