Fire Escape

The Pope Theatre Company's saucy production of Eric Overmyer's Dark Rapture begins with a killer scene that could turn the most hard-core devotee of movies and TV toward the pleasures of live theater. Two men collide at the edges of a cataclysmic fire in Northern California. Amid the slides, lights, moving stage props, and music that simulate the fire's voracious appetite, they shout back and forth at each other about chaos, loss, existence, and fighting in the jungles of Cambodia. As fire ravages his house, one of the men, Ray, questions why he feels so alive on the threshold of a catastrophe, and remarks that everyday life is not enough for human beings. Instead, he says, we have a "deep-seated need to manufacture our own inclement weather," an ominous observation that stalks him throughout the rest of the play as he runs from one life to the promise of another.

This edge-of-the-seat opening serves as an overture to more than a dozen scene changes in Dark Rapture, and each one, if not as pulse-thumping as the first, is as clever and theatrical. The result of an inspired collaboration between set designer Frank Cornelius, lighting designer Suzanne M. Jones, and sound designer Jon M. Loflin, the changing scenes function as backdrop to Overmyer's takeoff on two distinctly American forms -- detective novels and film noir. Abetted by an excellent cast under the direction of Louis Tyrrell, it all comes together for a topnotch production. Unfortunately, Overmyer's script, while witty and provocative in places, is never as shrewd or inventive as the Manalapan-based Pope Theatre's staging of it. (Dark Rapture was commissioned by the Empty Space Theater in Seattle and first performed in 1993.)

No one is who they say they are and nothing is as it appears to be in the play's skeletal whodunit, which unfolds in a series of character introductions. Ray (Earl Hagan) is a would-be screenwriter who may or may not be dead as a result of the fire, and who may or may not have made off with seven million dollars, left in his now-destroyed house by his wife, Julia (Rose Stockton), a would-be movie producer. While the fire rages, Julia engages in a steamy tàte-Ö-tàte in Mexico with her stuntman boyfriend, Danny (Quint Von Canon). She returns to face the wrath of her backers, the dubious Vegas (Gordon McConnell) and Lexington (Richard Farrell), who demand to know where their millions have gone. Burned to cinders, Julia insists. The investors have other ideas and, led by their hired goon, Babcock (Jesse Doran), they hit the trail in search of the missing husband.

Riddled with allusions to the genres it parodies, from Raymond Chandler novels to Humphrey Bogart movies, the play's mystery element attempts to fuel its narrative drive. But Dark Rapture's story is never as intricate or gripping as a good detective novel or double-indemnity film because the mystery is just a device Overmyer uses for his real concerns: a celebration of this nation's sense of "place," and a fascination with the American myth of losing one's history and starting over again.

Believe me, a challenging exploration of either of those themes could supplant my interest in even the tightest plotted mystery. After all, mysteries and thrillers dominate the best-seller lists and cineplexes; intelligent cultural observation is a much rarer commodity. Maybe that's why Overmyer's treatment of his own ideas is disappointing. After he reveals an interest in something more than the mere commercial, he betrays that interest by dealing with it only on the surface. For example, descriptions of American outposts such as Seattle, New Orleans, and Key West are relegated to travelogue recitations of street names, native food and drink, and weather conditions. As for the desire to remake oneself repeatedly, Overmyer's examination of this American compulsion is limited to the shedding and assuming of identities by changing names and appearances. Perhaps this is a comment on the shallowness of American values. If so, it's a shallow comment.

At its best, Overmyer's language strikes me as a combination of the verbal wit and relentless mind games of Tom Stoppard and the vernacular of Sam Shepard, although he does not achieve the sharpness of the former or the passion of the latter. However, he succeeds at amusingly re-creating several American types, and Dark Rapture's nimble cast does justice to them. Of particular note are Richard Farrell and Gordon McConnell, performing in concert as the mannered, stylized gangsters Lexington and Vegas. The two also play, just as comically, a completely different couple: Julia's lawyers. Rose Stockton as the ambitious Julia manages to remain in control even as her character verges on a breakdown when the money and success she counted on too confidently appear to be slipping away. Karen Stephens's Key West drug dealer (Max) delivers a sultry and riotous soliloquy on the absurdity of how couples in movies have sex A against the wall. And Jesse Doran is cunning and stealthy as the grinning, ubiquitous Babcock; most memorable is his heartbreaking performance as a completely different character, the immigrant used-car salesman Nazim, who appears in only one scene.

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