It’s no secret that I adore dark, weird drama (and musicals). Crumble (Lay Me Down Justin Timberlake) at the Theatre on the Square is one of the weirdest and darkest I’ve seen in a long time, and it’s awesome.
The play, written by Sheila Callaghan, who is also a writer/producer for the Showtime comedy Shameless, uses a cast of damaged characters to reflect on isolation, death, and deterioration. This sounds depressing, but really, it’s not. Plus, the bizarre humor is appallingly sidesplitting. The language used in the script is equally compelling. It’s sexy, luscious, even poetic at times, and it expresses as much about the characters as their bodies do.
From the beginning, you know this isn’t a typical show. It opens with Clay Mabbitt, as the once-dapper House, who delivers the first of many soliloquies. He bemoans, “I was a mansion once. A kept mansion,” but now he is in a state of decay. The House addresses his inhabitants, but his tenants are only marginally aware of his awareness—like a rising of hair on the back of the neck. Mabbitt is excellent as the anthropomorphic character that yearns for a loving touch, an oiled hinge, a release of radiator steam. Mabbitt’s physicality in depicting doors, windows, and falling plaster and his slithering along walls and floors add a whimsical and amusing touch to his lonely character.
Even stranger is Paeton Chavis’s character Janice, a hyper, foul-mouthed, belligerent 11-year-old who exhibits symptoms of schizoaffective disorder and spews explicit venom via her dolls. When confronted with freezing or wearing the abhorrent sweater her Aunt Brenda bought her, she states, “I would rather bleed to death in an open field slathered in manure.” Her doll comments, “Nice sweater, asshole.” Janice replies, “Eat me. You think you’re so hot just because you have an eyebrow ring. But know what? It looks retarded, and anyway, it’s fake.” From there, the exchange deteriorates into a series of insults involving the word “fuck.”
As House says, “How does one cultivate such an odd human?”
Chavis, who also played a disturbing child character in Phoenix Theatre’s production of The Nether in 2015, is equally amazing here. You realize quickly through her keen acting abilities that she is in fact a grown woman, but she is completely believable in her character. Most children are simply not this brilliant. Chavis is mesmerizing in her on-stage intensity and can deftly move from blooming psychotic to typical preteen star-struck reverence when Justin Timberlake flies into her room.
A jocular Joshua C. Ramsey, as Timberlake, also shows up as Harrison Ford for Clara, Janice’s mom. Mother and daughter embrace these ludicrous, dream-like escapes to find solace.
Carrie Ann Schlatter as Clara has the arduous task of anchoring the show in reality. Schlatter’s character is simply lost without her husband, and the widow’s obsessive menus and panic attacks plague her ability to move forward with her life, her house, her daughter, and her career. Schlatter does what she can with the character, but Clara’s evolution is slow, making her less interesting and/or sympathetic than those around her. Xanax, stat. However, she gets her share of lyrical yet quizzical lines. She describes her daughter’s breath as “napalm, like rotting fruit and stomach acid, as though she swallowed a pear months ago but can’t digest it.” Clara’s sounding board is her sister Barbara, a childless, divorced, crazy cat lady (numbering 57) played by Amy Hayes. Again, the character is flawed because it is so stereotypical, but Hayes gets to add amusing nuances in her interaction with her fur babies and with Janice.
All of this was coalesced under the direction of Rob Johansen. He has engineered a sneak attack for best play of the year, blemishes included.