The worlds that the plays written by Keri Healey inhabit could be described as “prosaically dynamic”; the word prosaic is used here not because her work lacks grace or beauty (qualities that are certainly not lacking in her work), but because they are typically fixated in the everyday, in the things we take for granted. Her plays are set at Ikea, or in chat rooms, for example, Healey possesses a keen sense for the large drama that could be found amid small emotions, presented in an unfussy manner. Perhaps “unassuming” might be a better adjective.
Her new play Torso, currently being produced by Printer’s Devil and running at Theater Off Jackson, marks the first time she has taken her skill at observation of minute details to tackle a theme as large and timeless as “what drives one to kill?” The fact that she does this by using the genre tropes associated with Noir makes Torso a fairly radical departure while still exhibiting all the hallmarks of a Healey production.
The play begins with Daphne (Sarah Rudinoff), our protagonist, in the midst of a fevered dream, which is the first indication that we are in pure Noir territory. After that element has been introduced, we flash back to the beginning of the previous evening, as Daphne gets into Eddie’s (John Q. Smith) cab after being turned away at the airport. After a brief flashback interlude, wherein we see a) how Daphne and Eddie randomly met, and b) their individual foibles, we come to find out how Daphne ended up at the airport to begin with: After receiving an insurance settlement from the wrongful death of her sister, Ceil (Emily Chisholm), she found out that an old friend, Marlo (Susanna Burney), is suspected of colluding to murder her brother.
Marlo, an actress who would identified as the Femme Fatale role in a traditional Noir, is introduced as she is in the middle of a callback with a fairly dismissive director (Stephen Hando) in a fairly important scene in establishing who Marlo is — there is something the director says to Marlo that not only pegs her, but also provides the fuel for a lot of what happens next. We are introduced to the Patsy and the Accomplice (Hando and Chisolm who are cast in four or five different roles each; Burney and Smith also have multiple roles to play), meanwhile Marlo and Daphne ruminate on how unknowable strangers and even people we think we know intimately are to each other. The first act builds in this manner, doing the heavy work in setting up the pieces, so that all we’re doing for the second act is watching the dominoes fall.
That they fall in such an intensely electric and intelligent fashion is richly gratifying; the way that Torso‘s marriage between Noir and Healey’s character studies connect rewards the attention paid in the early going. Noir demands that its protagonists are morally ambiguous at best, and Healey’s and Rudinoff’s Daphne is a beguiling jewel; it isn’t until the very last scene that we find out for sure whether she should be trusted or not. Until then, she remains an eminently likable mystery; similarly with Healey’s and Burney’s Marlo, who, by virtue of her actions, is nearly impossible to pin down one way or the other.
The ensemble as a whole fill their performances with a contagious relish, as each are given some meaty moments to play with. That Hando and Smith are versatile charismatic performers is something of a given, though Torso gives us some of the best uses of their talents in quite some time. Chisholm’s range is particularly effective; this quality is likely as much of a given as it is in her compatriots (granted, your correspondent has only seen her charming turn as Arietty in SCT’s The Borrowers up to this point, and this stands in stark contrast in comparison).
The production team is to be commended for a clever and flexible scenic and sound design, specific enough to evoke the numerous locations the story takes us to, but also simplistic enough that it doesn’t overwhelm the proceedings. Directorially speaking, David Bennett is to be commended for his approach, which truly pays dividends in the second act. If there is a niggle to be found, it’s in the inadvertent jarring effect that the multiple casting occasionally created. This last might be the result of any number of variables, including how early in the run your correspondent watched the production, so odds are that it’s something that has already been addressed in the course of production. Again, a niggle, in any scenario.
Along the way, Torso evokes many of the better qualities of recent era Neo-Noir; the dark humor of Fargo for example, or the devious nature of The Last Seduction. This is made all the more alluring and unpredictable because it is a new work–none of the regrettable sense of inevitability of Double Indemnity to be found here, as there isn’t a source material to crib from.
The unusual nature of Torso is what makes it remarkable–sure, it’s Noir, but it’s something else too. The play is both personal and artificial, which aren’t mutually exclusive notions, but it’s the way that Daphne’s fascination with what drives Marlo, and the reasons we’re given for her fascination really weave their way under the skin in ways that underline the inherent humanity in this production. Sure, it’s a dark landscape, but it’s also an entirely recognizable and comfortable one. Well worth a trip to the ID.
Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00p.m.; through March 31 // Theater Off Jackson, 409 Seventh Avenue South // $15 at Brown Paper Tickets, $18 at the door