Few things demonstrate the competence of a dramatist more tellingly than the orchestration of violence. The best playwrights use it sparingly. Graham Farrow, however, whose Rattlesnakes (2001) is currently onstage at the Springs Ensemble Theatre, ranges between skill and ineptitude in this area, and is often rescued from total implausibility by an outstanding performance from lead actor Oscar Robinson.
In the play, three Brit working stiffs hogtie a gigolo named McQueen (Robinson) in a seedy northeast England motel room to exact a cuckold's revenge. McQueen is allowed to speak in his own defense, and as a result his abductors are gradually devitalized. In fact, they learn from him that they're in way over their heads as both husbands and aspiring thugs.
June Scott Barfield's set contributes an authentic end-point for this flustered male quest for truth, and a certifiable nowhere for the extramarital desires of women to reveal themselves via McQueen. That we're going to learn from Farrow what these desires might be is one of the play's sustaining dramatic questions, and a good one. Farrow wanders, however, from one routine situation to the next, with an occasional punch to McQueen's gut or twisting of his ear that Robinson ably keeps out of Three Stooges territory.
Overall, the roles are difficult and demand rapid emotional shifts. Each suffering husband is put to the test by McQueen with descriptions of wifely disgust or ambivalence that both provoke and deflate their purpose as his abductors.
"I entertain them," McQueen confesses, and sometimes sex never takes place; he just listens to the women's woes. Farrow has a keen sense of how marriages can fail, and SET actors Dylan Mosley, Jonathan Andujar and Kyle Urban disintegrate nicely as they discover their flaws as husbands.
Which is worse, the external blows inflicted on McQueen, or the inner pangs of guilt and remorse endured by his hapless interrogators over their own marital inadequacies? Well done, Urban and Andujar, walking McQueen's plank.
It's the second act where Rattlesnakes unravels with unlikely reversals, reconciliations and assaults out of left field. "This could get messy," director Steve Emily warns in a program note, and he keeps that promise, or rather, Farrow keeps it for him.
Other clear positives at SET, on the other hand, hold our interest and keep us involved. Chief among them is Robinson's McQueen. He sails through Farrow's stagey contrivances undeterred, without a hint of disbelief on his part or ours.
Another is Farrow's own knack for suspense. McQueen has an appointment lined up that very afternoon with one of the wives in question, Shelly (a sexy LeAnne Carrouth), and we wait, not for the tantalizing if shop-worn voyeurism of the situation, but for a glimpse of ultimate psychological realities otherwise kept hidden. Barfield's motel room becomes a kind of inner sanctum for this risky event, a side-door escape from the repressive horrors of conventional marriage and workaday life.
Whether Farrow had this deliberately in mind is a separate question; it's a scene, however, that's well worth the wait. Freud would love it.
Finally, Rattlesnakes comes full circle with a chilling disclosure of the kind of guy we've been dealing with all along in McQueen. "Our dreams die as soon as our sweat dries," one character blurts out in distress. And we're lucky if it's only the dreams that expire with guys like this on the street.