Cast highlights a bloody relationship drama
Published: June 8, 2011
Love and Human Remains
By Brad Fraser
Presented by Iron Crow Theatre through June 18 at the Johns Hopkins University Mattin Center's Swirnow Theater
The first time Bernie (Tim Elliot) shows up with blood on his face, David (Steven J. Satta) doesn’t think anything of it. Sure, it’s after last call and Bernie’s into his cups, but fights happen—especially to Bernie. He and David have history—and they both have history with David’s roommate Candy (Michele Minnick), who is none too happy to discover that Bernie spent the night the next morning. He makes her nervous—something about him is just a little off, and has been ever since—well, something about all of them has been off ever since . . . but that was so long ago. Wasn’t it?
Canadian playwright Brad Fraser’s Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love, which deals out details in drips and drabs, has proven itself a malleable, prescient piece of narcissistic masochism. The 1989 original was set in Edmonton, Alberta, and suggested the city was as mired in feckless ennui and common desperation as any big, troubled, postindustrial urban wasteland. Against a backdrop of a serial killer mutilating the bodies of women, three vain thirtysomething friends bicker and brood over their love lives—make that their lack of love lives: Candy and David used to date until David came out, while Bernie and David have been best mates forever but you sense a little unresolved sexual tension there. Since that 1989 original, it’s been staged in New York, moved to Montreal for Denys Arcand’s 1992 movie adaptation, and was updated for a post-Sept. 11 world during a 2004 off-Broadway revival.
Now, Fraser has permitted Iron Crow Theatre and director Joseph Ritsch to set Love and Human Remains in contemporary Baltimore. It’s a decision that doesn’t add/subtract much from the experience itself—aside from local references to the Hippo, cruising Lake Montebello at night, etc. The play’s strengths reside in its characters—actually, make that in the damaged people struggling to become less so over the course of this play. David and Candy, while no longer romantically involved, maintain codependency by living together. They take turn feeding each other’s cynicism and hopes. A former TV actor now waiting tables, David possesses a world-weary wit to match how little he expects from human interaction. Candy isn’t much better: She knows she wants something, but is so unsure of what that something is. She’s willing to fancy a date with Jerri (Erin Gahan), a woman from the gym who asks her out, and Robert (Christopher H. Zargarbashi), the bartender at the watering hole she goes to after working out.
David’s love life isn’t much better. He appears to be closest to Benita (Katie O. Solomon), the prostitute/psychic with an almost goth morbid streak: She likes to recite gruesome urban legends with the sort of devilish relish that borders on naughty talk. And while Kane (Ryan Airey), the not-even-legal and maybe bi-curious busboy twink, takes a shine to the older waiter, David appears to have more fun toying with Kane’s head than forging a genuine friendship-qua-relationship with the young man. And then there’s the matter of Bernie, who keeps showing up with blood on his face or his shirt, random earrings in his pockets, and his estranged wife creepily not home anytime David tries to call her.
Fraser piles these storylines almost atop each other, and Ritsch maintains that sense of claustrophobia by keeping the entire cast onstage almost all the time. Lights may focus your attention to David and Candy’s apartment stage right, or the bed in the middle of the stage where a variety of pairings engage in various degrees of loveless sex. Ritsch and Daniel Ettinger designed the spartan stage, a series of slatted false walls and movable furniture that gets spread out over the entire stage.
Iron Crow makes its debut at the Mattin Center’s Swirnow Theater, and while the proper theater provided better technical lighting and sound options for the company, this is one play that might’ve benefited from a more constricted performance space. These seven people feel to live among and all over each other until they’re forced to react to each other and themselves, a dynamic that could’ve been dramatically heightened with tighter blocking.
As is, the play’s driving forces have to come entirely from the cast, who do meet that challenge. Zargarbashi, who was a great Shark in Iron Crow’s Swimming in the Shallows, once again plays off his conventional handsomeness as Robert, a seemingly good guy who may not be as good as he seems. Gahan has a field day as Jerri, making her that perhaps overzealous romantic partner who wants to move from hello to bed to “I love you” before you’ve really had a chance to remember her last name. Airey does a nice job with Kane, wrapping his sexual confusion around those everyday dumb boy issues that plague gay and straight men in those awful young dude years when the dick and mind don’t even speak the same language, let alone agree on anything. And Solomon handles the problematic Benita with a durable grace, imbuing this at times one-dimensional character with a needed vulnerability to counterbalance the superficial sex appeal.
Elliot’s Bernie is the only player who feels a little off. From the moment he enters you know something’s not right about him, and while Fraser’s script certainly isn’t coy about dropping hints about Bernie’s nocturnal activities, Elliot’s intense performance has you thinking “psycho wingnut” from the first moment he walks onstage. He might as well tuck and coo, “I’d fuck me hard.”
Fortunately the plays focuses primarily on David and Candy, and Satta and Minnick are top notch. They not only get some of the best lines, but their casual delivery and needling intimacy lends the sense of two people who know way too much about each other but also can’t live without each other. Satta, especially, has the acidic bite in Fraser’s dialogue down pat, and when David decides to use words as weapons, they never miss their mark. Minnick, meanwhile, pulls off more in mere reactions: When Candy finds herself in a room with Jerri and Robert, Minnick’s face and posture alone convey a mortification that no dialogue line ever could.
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