When Hurlyburly premiered on Broadway back in 1984, it couldn’t be described as a “period piece.” It was a modern play, concerned with the issues of the time, punctuated by pop culture references (Here’s Johnny!). When the play was adapted for the screen, in 1999, it not only was condensed from a sprawling 3-act play into a tight 2-hour movie, but the setting was updated from the coked-out 80s into the coked-out late 90’s. The revival at the Chain Theatre keeps the tighter length but doubles down on the 80s, transforming Hurlyburly, once upon a time a contemporary play, into a period piece.
The set is strewn with contemporary magazines, from Life to Playboy; the musical interludes are the best of Billy Joel and Boy George, and the costumes are crafted with a loving eye for the styles of the decade—leather jackets, nylon, fishnets. There was even a time-appropriate CRT television playing music videos. But the 80s homage is a problem, because Hurlyburly hasn’t aged well.
The play is about four low-level Hollywood players as they do herculean amounts of cocaine and struggle with existential ennui. The entirety of the action takes place in Eddie’s (Kirk Gostowski) Hollywood Hills home, which he shares with his roommate Micky (Deven Anderson) and a constantly revolving cast of characters. In particular, Phil (Brandon Scott Hughes), a loser with anger issues, is constantly hanging around and blowing lines in the morning. All these men have problems: their careers are tough and they’re all estranged from their wives.
Oh, and those wives. We never meet them. Instead, we get to meet a few ladies who are defined (by the men and by themselves) as pieces of ass. This near constant sexism is difficult to take. Anytime there’s a woman, she is referred to as a broad and a bitch constantly and consistently. Granted, this is part Hurlyburly’s commentary on the sexism and objectification of women in 80s Hollywood, but it’s hard to take its message seriously when all three female characters involved are little more than props, or—if we’re being generous—one-dimensional characters.
There’s Darlene (Christina Perry), supposedly Eddie’s girlfriend, who is passed between Eddie and Mickey like she has no agency in the matter. Then there’s Donna (Rachel Cora), a teenage runaway who is from “somewhere in the Middle West” who could be replaced by a blowup doll without significantly changing the play. In the scene where she is introduced, she is “given” to the roommates as a “present,” with negotiations taking place out loud in front of her and to which she’s oblivious. Then there’s Bonnie (Jacklyn Collier), the classic stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold, who inexplicably agrees to go on a blind date with Phil (they’ve never met) while he’s “blotto” and ranting. That scene, in particular, is unbelievable at its best and carelessly sexist at its worst. Thirty years after 1984, this is cringe-worthy, misogynistic, and honestly, not that much fun to watch.
The Chain Theatre’s production doesn’t help. It is a small, nontraditional house with only 35 seats, and indeed, the stage takes up vastly more space than the seating. If only they used the space efficiently. The vast majority of the action takes place in a seating area directly in front of the audience. The other half of the stage area is taken up by a kitchen counter and bar cart and a big painting of L.A. downtown meant to be a window. They are rarely used, and frankly, it’s difficult to surmise why the director wanted such an expansive set for such a claustrophobic play.
Mr. Gostowski is sharp and plays the self-doubting and guilt-ridden Eddie well until he becomes a deranged shouting madman after intermission. Lines that are supposed to be menacing play as mocking as he delivers them with the subtlety of a street corner preacher. If the second act is supposed to be about Eddie’s catharsis, then he should tone down his volume. It’s unfortunate, because the yelling—the ‘hurlyburly’—runs over several lines that delivered with the right pacing and tone could be hilarious. Mr. Anderson steals the show simply because he delivers the good punchlines dryly: “Q: What kind of friendship is this? A: An adequate one.”
The title Hurlyburly is taken from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and although David Rabe’s play has little to do with witches or even ambition—in fact, it is unclear what the major themes of the play are—it’s a sufficiently evocative word to describe the arguments between the main characters. But to misappropriate another out-of-context line from Macbeth, after Hurlyburly tells its tale full of sound and fury, it ultimately signifies nothing.