In keeping with play’s basement-bar motif, your program for Bob Kills Theatre’s production of Pulitzer-winning playwright John Patrick Shanley’s Savage in Limbo comes in a drink-menu format. The venue, a newly renovated basement hall called The Downstage (previously used by the Playwright Project and other independent companies), has undergone considerable changes, and now boasts blacked-out walls, more lighting, and an actual (albeit small) stage. But most of Savage Limbo, described by Shanley as a “concert play,” is set in the round on broken-down beer-box flooring that’s supposed to suggest a neighbourhood watering hole. There, a motley assortment of dreamers and malcontents are trying to change their lives.
It’s Monday night in the Bronx, and the bar’s jukebox is broken. This proves to be significant, because instead of distracting themselves with dancing or partying, everyone who shows up at the near-deserted bar will be doing some serious thinking, out loud. There’s title character Denise Savage (Diana Bentley), a tightly wound woman who’s conflicted about her spinster status; Linda Rotunda (Melissa D’Agostino), a lascivious former classmate of Savage’s, whose longtime boyfriend (Nick Abraham) has confessed to a desire to date other, “uglier” girls; and April White (Caitlin Driscoll), a stupefied bar-stool fixture, whose state of inebriation is maintained by brusque but protective bartender Murk (Tim Walker).
All of them are desperate for change, and it’s tonight that they’ll zero in on what they think those changes should be. This will lead to (often hilarious) conflict with their former classmates and potential friends. The characters are so serious that they fail to recognize the absurdity of many of their constantly mutating epiphanies.
Before completing this play in 1984, Shanley had already developed a distinct style of rapid-fire dialogue, which may ring familiar to anyone who has seen any of the films he has written, like Moonstruck or Joe Versus the Volcano. This is tragicomic stuff, with an emphasis on the comic.
The show would fall flat if any of the actors flubbed that cadence and delivery, but director Sarah Kitz has assembled a heck of a cast to populate this bar. Bentley and D’Agostino both vibrate with desperation and excitement, and they turn on a dime as their objectives shift. Abraham’s Italian lothario, who could have been a shallow caricature, has a dignity and philosophical bent that elicits our sympathy. And then there’s the oddness of Murk, who goes to extreme lengths to keep April, his best customer, dazed but conscious.
It’s a real pleasure to watch the actors stalk by as they pace the playing space with viewers on three sides. This open concept (or simple lack of a proscenium stage) is also being used to good effect right now by companies like Litmus Theatre for its Birth of Frankenstein, and Videofag for Shiela Heti’s All Our Happy Days Are Stupid. For Bob Kills Theatre and the new Downstage (which officially reopens on November 9th, after Save Limbo‘s extended run has closed), this revitalized play and space are good first steps forward.