One of Seattle’s most exciting theater companies, Azeotrope, has launched what might be its most ambitious project yet, staging two emotionally exhausting plays in repertory — same space, same director, same cast. The two works, Joshua Rollins’s 25 Saints and Adam Rapp’s Red Light Winter, are nearly perfectly complementary pieces. Both examine people isolated by their own feelings, grasping desperately for human connection. One follows its tightly wound narrative to a logically explosive conclusion while the other burns out, evaporating in a puff of smoke. Deep conviction and commitment define Azeotrope’s productions of both — whatever shortcomings either of these works may have, they hardly seem germane when confronted with such sustained passion.
25 Saints, a brisk no-intermission 90 minutes set in a West Virginia hovel, opens with blood and fury and movement, and rarely lets up, pausing only to shift into bouts of emotional carnage instead. Meth cooks Charlie (Tim Gouran) and Tuck (Richard Nguyen Sloniker) are on the verge of fulfilling a debt to the town’s crooked sheriff (James Lapan) and escaping to Virginia Beach with Sammy (Libby Barnard), but a dead deputy throws a wrench into the proceedings.
Gouran’s sensitive, heavyhearted performance is remarkable. Charlie is a man who’s assumed the bulk of responsibility left behind by his deadbeat, disappeared brother. The meth debt was his, and so was Sammy, and Charlie is determined to make both right, even if his romantic inclinations aren’t exactly reciprocated.
25 Saints avoids deadweight for the most part; we get glimpses of the town’s rampant, systemic sickness courtesy of the sheriff’s heavy Duffy (Mary Murfin Bayley) and pizza delivery driver/meth-head Sasha (Mariel Neto), but the play’s core is Charlie and Sammy, a relationship borne out of desperation that just might be able to withstand the coming horror. The whole thing proceeds down an inevitable, familiar American Gothic path, but with Desdemona Chiang’s focused direction, the play’s unrelenting fatalism is gripping.
Also on the docket is Red Light Winter, which Azeotrope produced back in 2010 as its inaugural production. The same three-person cast has returned, and is in top form for this bleak chamber piece, sometimes cuttingly hilarious but more often overwhelmingly gloomy.
Former college buddies Matt (Sloniker) and Davis (Gouran) are on vacation in Amsterdam, where the terminally uncomfortable Matt has holed himself up in the hotel room, contemplating suicide, while the substantially more gregarious Davis has been out sampling the city’s pleasures. Davis brings a French prostitute, Christina (Neto), back for Matt, in hopes of jumpstarting the sad-sack’s libido and, consequently, his happiness. The three hang out for a bit, and Matt describes the play he’s writing, Christina sings a number she wrote in her cabaret days, and Davis brags about his superior taste and success as a hotshot book editor.
And then, things shift. Christina isn’t exactly who she says she is. Matt’s crippling relational apathy (how else would he still be friends with a boor like Davis?) begins to be replaced with a kind of fixation that might be a lot more dangerous. Just how dangerous? We start to see the signs in Act Two when Christina shows up at his apartment in New York by accident a year later.
The unfortunately schematic nature of Rapp’s play reveals itself in the second act as Matt’s longing for Christina and Christina’s longing for Davis follow one another in a carousel of loneliness that’s a little too neatly defined. Still, this is an extremely affecting play when measured by its emotional awareness, and it makes for a stunning actors’ showcase.
Sloniker seems to have internalized a lifetime of disappointment and unfulfilled potential for his quietly devastating portrait of Matt. Neto is seductive and mysterious until all that artifice is torn away and all that remains is a vulnerable, exposed husk of a human being. Gouran, in a complete reversal of his 25 Saints turn, is gleefully obnoxious and unrepentantly nihilistic. There’s little humanity to be found in his character, but his performance is appealingly well-rounded nonetheless.
Catherine Cornell’s scenic design is seedily evocative in the run-down cabin of 25 Saints and appropriately spartan in both halves of Red Light Winter. Andrew D. Smith’s lighting and Evan Mosher’s sound design help transform ACT’s black-box Eulalie Scandiuzzi space into convincing recreations of a West Virginia forest and a glowing, bustling red light district.
Azeotrope has posited itself as an ambitious company and this repertory doubleheader does nothing to contradict that claim. The shows run through Nov. 24 at ACT Theatre. A performance schedule and tickets are available online.