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Theater Review: Blood Play

Two pairs of married friends. A shambling stranger. We're in a raw, barely born suburb of Chicago, hewn out of farmland, and it's the fifties: We know from the forced naïveté, the crushing repression, the pine-paneled basement rec room, the overstocked bar. (All cartoonishness is, of course, entirely intentional.) Unlimited anxiety and unlimited cocktails are what's on tap, and a series of screechingly preposterous party games ensue. Meanwhile, in the yard outside, a vengeful child sulks in a tent, praying to an unseen, subterranean presence to rain judgment on his tormentors. Blood Play is a sort of inverted Virginia Woolf, a night besotted with darkness and drink where virtually nothing honest is spoken aloud — until the final, fatal malediction. The Debate Society (Hannah Bos, Paul Thureen, and director Oliver Butler) has concocted a Halloween wet bar of horrors without stooping to a single gotcha — just one long, unsettlingly funny windup to catastrophe. 

Blood Play is set underground, where the action is — where the action always is. Rumbling, chthonic spirits and insidious root systems keep invading the pipes and peace of a brightly lit basement, the game room of brittle hausfrau Bev (Bos) and preternaturally hearty Morty (Michael Cyril Creighton, so chipper it hurts), a trophy-maker and -seller. (The job suits him on a metaphysical level.) They're white-flight immigrants from the South Side. Everything about them — from their too-ingratiating miens to their fear of not being accepted at the local synagogue — screams "We're new here." Incidentally, "here" is also new here: The grass of their subdivision has barely grown over the newly cleared farmland. A traveling photographer named Jeep (Thureen) stops by, along with neighbor and co-religionist Sam (Hanlon Smith-Dorsey) and his chilly wife, Gail (Birgit Huppuch, who makes Bebe Neuwirth's Lilith character look like a Care Bear in comparison). They all quickly tank up and party down in Laura Jellinek's lived-in set, which appears to be simplicity itself: tacky japonica on the wall, hideous overstuffed couch tinted threat-level orange, shuffleboard painted on the floor, and enough stockpiled hooch to anesthetize a herd of bison.

But like everything and everyone else in Blood Play, the set has its secrets and ulterior motives. Some of these slip out; most stay put or poke their heads above ground just long enough to put us off our highballs. The show's less than 90 minutes, and not a second of that stretch isn't knotted up with nerves and impending doom — which only makes the discomfited laughs escape us with more force. Each and every pause, every awkwardness, every small slight and bad joke tickles so hard it stabs. There is no end to this night, and no release awaits, but at the end, we get a very different view of the evening, from the accordioned perspective of little Ira (Ronete Levenson), playing Indian in his pup tent outside. The adult world is menacing indeed, glimpsed through a basement window, but Ira's not scared. He's on the offense: He communes with a tree stump, the source of those pesky roots that keep invading Morty's plumbing. As braying, boozy laughter and nonstop blandishments emanate from the basement, Ira supplicates an unseen Something, looking for another sort of satisfaction. Blood Play makes use of energies and images you'll find familiar, but the giggly-grim genius of it resides in its ensemble, whose patience and timing are dead-on.       

Blood Play is playing at the Bushwick Starr and has just been extended to November 3.

Photo: Sue Kessler