When I heard about this production of an Adam Rapp play by New York’s most audacious theater troupe, I wondered if the always-fearless Amoralists would do as well with a play they hadn’t baked themselves, as they do with their homegrown works. But the troupe and Rapp’s Ghosts in the Cottonwoods turn out to be a potent combination. The story, initially hilarious, then wrenching, may be rural instead of urban, but it suits these downtown flamethrowers just fine.
The play fits squarely in the tradition of scary backwoods tales—think Deliverance or The Beans of Egypt, Maine. The illiterate mom here, played by the smoldering Sarah Lemp, is even nicknamed “Bean.” But Rapp, unlike in many such set-ups, doesn’t offer us the typical hapless interloper wandering in from the civilized outside world. No, it’s all about the Scullys: Bean, her teenage son Pointer (Nick Lawson), and Nick’s older brother Jeff (James Kautz), who has escaped from prison and is on his way home after six years.
A spectacularly weatherbeaten platform, which brings to mind a Sam Shepard set—Shepard seems to breathe all over this play, actually—represents the family’s one-room cabin. Lanky Pointer sleeps under the kitchen table, mom on a pad in the corner. A storm rages outside. Friendly kitchen clutter is piled up stage right. Bean dances with her son and tries to get him to take up smoking. A dead stranger (William Apps) crouches in the corner…
No, I’m getting ahead of myself. But I think I have an excuse: despite the oddly varied pace of the 90-minute play—too fast to follow at the beginning, slow and breathless later—the events feel piled up, the way real-life ones do when recollected in tranquility. It would be giving away far too much to describe those events. Suffice it to say, this is a prodigal son story with a Category 5 twist.
How exactly Jeff got word home that he’s headed their way isn’t clear, as the Scullys don’t have a phone and Bean is afraid to leave the house. Pointer does go out, though—enough to have girlfriends. One in particular, Shirley Judyhouse, played by Mandy Nicole Moore (another Amoralists regular), is the closest we come to a representative of civilization. She’s taught Pointer to read and even offers to do the same for Bean. Like Pointer with his dreams of rap stardom, she talks a blue streak. But despite her learning, she is, like the Scullys, one with the shifting, leech-laden, muddy landscape. Bean keeps rope on hand to tie the homemade house down, for “when the hill starts slidin.”
In Bean, Rapp—who also directs—has created a miracle of stability amid transience, and in Pointer and Shirley, a pair of comic wonders. Matthew Pilieci is a gas as the stranger, and when older brother Jeff finally arrives, well, you just have to see it, and prepare to be nonplussed and disturbed—and severely, painfully entertained. The Amoralists have done it again.
Ghosts in the Cottonwoods runs through Dec. 6 at Theatre 80 St. Marks. Tickets at the Theatre 80 website or call 212-388-0388.
Photos by Annie Parisse. 1. L-R: Sarah Lemp (as Bean Scully) takes control of William Apps (as Newton Yardly). Background: Nick Lawson (as Pointer Scully, the son of Bean Scully) 2. L-R: Mandy Nicole Moore (as Shirley Judyhouse), Nick Lawson (as Pointer Scully, the son of Bean Scully) and Sarah Lemp (as Bean Scully).