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Blues Fallin' Down Like Hail 

Is Denis Johnson's new work one play -- or three?

Wednesday, Aug 2 2000
Denis Johnson has outdone himself. He's not premiering one new play at Intersection for the Arts, as you might suspect from reading other papers; he's premiering three.

Ever since last year, when Intersection hosted a stage version of his story collection Jesus' Son, the space has kept up a relationship with Johnson that resembles ACT's friendship with Tom Stoppard. Two Stoppard plays in a row have American-premiered at ACT -- bypassing New York -- because the playwright just likes the way his stuff gets done here; and now Intersection has landed the world premiere of Johnson's first play, Hellhound on My Trail, which, for any San Franciscan who feels culturally inferior to New York-dwellers, is pretty cool. Johnson and Stoppard are good writers, after all, and beating New Yorkers to see new work by good writers is like beating your sister to the cookie jar.

Appropriately, Hellhound resembles a Shepard play. (Sam Shepard preferred San Francisco as a playwriting home for a while, too.) It deals with lowlifes, frame-ups, drugs, God, and the American West. But it also has a broad strand of noirish satire; the plot connecting its three wayward acts follows a conspiracy within the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Johnson's sense of humor saves him from indulging in too much Shepard-style metaphysical speculation, but the funny bureaucratic-conspiracy plot holding the work together is more authorial excuse than drama. ("See?" you can almost hear him insisting. "That's how these people are related." Yeah, right.) Hellhound holds up best as a series of one-acts. So Intersection has, in fact, landed the world premiere of Johnson's first three plays, which is a tremendous coup.

"Colorado River," or Act 1, shows a woman called Marigold Cassandra waiting in a Houston office for some kind of nerve-wracking interview. She sprays her tongue with breath freshener, pops pills, and swills booze from a hip flask. A woman dressed primly as a cleaning lady comes in and discusses the magazines. The conversation slips and veers until the cleaning lady sits behind a desk and reveals herself as Marigold's interviewer, Mrs. May. "I do smell liquor," Mrs. May says. "Is that you?" "Of course not." Their conversa- tion is oblique, almost off-putting, but it turns out to be a question-and-answer session within the U.S. Department of Agriculture regarding Mari-gold's job. "Did you," Mrs. May asks, getting to the point at last, "invite Alan Toohy to apply jam to your private places and lick it away?"

No, says Marigold: A lesbian called Kate Wendell only says that because she's trying to get me fired. That's what all this is about -- sexual politics within the department. But in the next act, "Head Rolling and Rolling," we meet Kate Wendell, and learn that she's not as much of a lesbian as Marigold seems to think.

Alexis Lezin and Anne Darragh, as Marigold and Mrs. May respectively, do a good job of making the atmosphere in Act 1 edgy and uncertain, but they need time to warm up to their roles; I saw them in a preview and thought they were stiff. Some stiffness may live in the writing, since the characters speak obliquely in order to tease the audience with fragments of information. This willful obliquity gets worse in Act 2. Kate Wendell, the lesbian, strolls into a cafe and sits with a man called Jack Toast, who's flown to Houston from Washington to work on the jam-licking problem. At first there's another case of mistaken identity: Kate thinks Jack looks like someone else in the Department of Agriculture. They straighten that out, then discuss the de-tailed convolutions of a bureaucratic investigation, and seem to flirt, like two detectives in a '40s thriller.

Michael Torres, as Toast, and Delia MacDougall, as Kate, hit chemistry-heavy pockets of dialogue, and pull off some funny moments of satire, especially when Toast draws diagrams of the department's investigative "compartments" on the table. But other moments feel functional, willed; you can almost see them being typed.

Act 3 is the strongest, and also the most Shepard-like. It's called "Hellhound on My Trail." A brilliant new version of the old Robert Johnson song -- all mellow bass and torchy vocals -- has been recorded for this show by Marcus Shelby and Scheherazade Stone, and we get to hear the whole piece while Mark Cassandra, Marigold's brother, wakes up in a dirty motel. He opens his eyes, can't remember a thing, and thinks it's a frame-up: "Oh no. Ya got the shit-box hotel. Ya got the puke on the sheets. Ya got the gun with the missing bullets ...." Not to mention the bags of coke on the windowsill. Sean San José plays Mark with a true, direct intensity that's both affecting and funny; and Brian Keith Russell, as the motel manager, an FBI agent, or somebody else completely, also has a nicely blended sense of absurdity and Texan grit.

But what does any of it have to do with the rest of the play? Mark is involved with his sister's case, sure, and Russell's character explains everything in the end, but after two hours all the play's goofiness and obliquity have vitiated most of its power, and you wish Johnson had spent more time refining each act as a unit and less time concocting some excuse to weave them together -- because it's not drama.

Novelists as a breed have less success writing plays than poets, but Johnson is both. He's written books of poems like The Incognito Lounge, novels like Already Dead and his new The Name of the World; Jesus' Son is his famous series of (interlocking) stories about a wandering heroin junkie. On paper he can be moving and taut-voiced, grim. But onstage, for some reason, he tends to be funny. There's nothing wrong with funny. There's also nothing wrong with Hellhound, on the surface. It just doesn't dredge as well as the best of Johnson. It feels like three vagabond plays, unaware of their own possibilities.


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