Prepare to be consistently surprised if you buy a ticket to Beating Up Bachman, a new play by Wayne Rawley, presented by Bash Theatre and Radial Theater Project in Seattle. For the most part, these surprises will not be jolting or sudden or jaw-dropping. Rather, they’ll likely be the product of constantly readjusted expectations. Beating Up Bachman opens with a scene that seems to spell out clearly what’s in store — a dysfunctional working class family tries to prove to one another and themselves that they’re not as big of fuck-ups as it seems — but the character dynamics are constantly shifting, sometimes in barely perceptible ways.
This works because Beating Up Bachman is unashamedly shaggy. The product of improvisational workshops that were molded into a script by Rawley, the play approaches three hours and has scenes that sometimes drag on too long and a couple subplots that feel like they could have been excised. But by and large, this isn’t much of a concern — Rawley’s dialogue thrums with lived-in authenticity; it’s a pleasure to listen to in slowly unfolding scenes of simultaneous familiarity and discomfort.
The entire play takes place in the Eastern Washington kitchen of Lisa Trucker (Lisa Every) and her husband, Ryan Denneker (Ryan Sanders). Both Lisa’s sisters are in moments of crisis — middle sister Jennifer (Jenn Ruzumna) is faced with a sudden tragedy befalling her new husband, Jeff, while youngest Elizabeth (Elizabeth Deutsch) just got chased with an ax by her no-good husband, Bachman. Well, maybe.
The frazzled Lisa isn’t unsympathetic to her sisters’ plights, but she also isn’t crazy about her home acting as a place of refuge for both, and it doesn’t help matters that Ryan’s black sheep older brother Cris (Cristopher Berns) and childhood friend Cam (Chris Macdonald) seem to always be in her goddamn kitchen. Ryan hasn’t seen his independent construction business take off the way he had hoped, and soon, he’s been sucked in to Cris and Cam’s plan to go beat the shit out of Bachman.
Much of the play’s focus revolves around the unseen deadbeat, but as the family is forced into close quarters with one another, uncomfortable truths have to be confronted, right there in that kitchen. The coldness of matriarch Sarah Trucker (Sara Thiessen) and her tumultuous relationship with ex-husband Frick offer some clues to her daughters’ emotional issues, while the reappearance of high school friend (and Jeff’s ex-wife) Lori (Lori Stein) dredges up more of the past than anyone wants to acknowledge.
Rawley allows the dysfunction to sprawl. The scenes here are fairly discrete, but they’re not neatly constructed. Characters sit and stand in the kitchen. They drink endless cans of Natty Ice. They talk about their feelings and they obfuscate a lot more of them. They make plans and they don’t follow through. They debate whether hot dogs ought to be served with buns or without. It’s all gloriously awkward.
There’s an obvious affection for the characters shared by the cast, which helps paper over some of the rougher “big emotional moments” that don’t quite come off right. By play’s end, you’re convinced you’re watching real people, and that’s a testament to Rawley’s writing and the cast’s chemistry. Director David Gassner is less concerned with tight blocking and perfectly accentuated emotional beats than with cultivating an unpredictable sense of emotional chaos, and it’s a good fit with the material.
Like Rawley’s previous work, convenience store dark comedy Live! From the Last Night of My Life, Beating Up Bachman displays an intimate understanding of its milieu and isn’t afraid to take risks. And like Live!, it’s got a killer ending.