It is a stormy summer night in New Orleans, five years before Hurricane Katrina hits. But the Clay family’s once opulent home in the Garden District is already going to seed as it is being prepared for evacuation. No, it’s not a natural disaster that spurs the sale of the family property, home, and all of its possessions, but rather the results of the cumulative actions by family members. Each of them is soon enough identified by their respectively idiotic behavior, and their presumably irresponsible, and illegal missteps. In playwright Beth Henley’s “Ridiculous Fraud,” now having its world premiere at the McCarter’s Berlind Theater, we meet more of Henley’s growing fictional family of Southern eccentrics.
Outrageous, funny, pathetic, and, as you may suspect from the title, fraudulent, these people are extracted from the fertile mind of the playwright who won the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Drama in 1981 for “Crimes of the Heart” (subsequently released as a film in 1986). Henley filters her delectably skewed view of Southerners with a unique flair for instigating the improbable but possible. She continues in the poignantly comical vein that made some of her other plays, “The Miss Firecracker Contest,” “The Wake of Jamey Foster,” “The Debutante Ball,” and “Impossible Marriage” so irrepressibly endearing.
This free-wheeling borderline farcical play also leaves the distinct impression that Henley’s gift is one driven more by character than by plot. At the end of Act I, you may scratch your head wondering where these odd and recklessly motivated characters are heading. At the end of the play, you may be asking the same question, although realizing it was at least fun trying to get somewhere. The play, directed by Lisa Peterson, with a notable affection for the genre and its respect for dramatic anarchy, is divided into four sections, four locations during each of the four seasons of the year.
Lafcad Clay (Daniel London), the youngest brother, has abruptly terminated his impending nuptials on the eve of the wedding day. The idiosyncratically poetic Lafcad has run off and sought refuge in the overgrown garden of the family home, barely escaping the rage (the word “lynching” is used) of his wealthy fiance’s family. The immature but individualistically-inclined Lafcad has always been suspected by his older brothers of having “tendencies.” Now, his rash somehow inevitable act has cut off their last hope to salvage the family’s sagging fortunes.
The flighty Lafcad may be a lost cause, but what about high-strung hyper-tense Andrew (Reg Rogers), the oldest brother, who is busy campaigning for election as State Auditor on a platform of “honesty and trust,” but with money being supplied by his father-in-law, a conspicuously fraudulent Ed (John Carroll Lynch). We are not surprised that Andrew is clueless regarding the affections that his distracted wife Willow (Ali March) is showing toward Kap (Tim DeKay), the duck-hunting middle brother. Although full of bluster and braggadocio, Ed is also unaware that his restless second wife Maude (Barbara Garrick) has also set about her own romantic design, one that you can be sure will affect Willow, who is Ed’s daughter from his first marriage.
They all certainly deserve the company of likable gullible Baites (Charles Haid), the boys’ uncle and a confirmed bachelor. Baites has, however, in a moment of weakness lost his heart to Georgia (Heather Goldenhersh), a pretty but generally pathetic and lost (in every sense of the word) young woman with one wooden leg whom he found at the train station and subsequently invited to the wedding then to his home.
After the sale of the family home, the intrigues continue at Uncle Baites’ backwoods farmhouse where the smitten Baites is determined to give Georgia a diamond ring; where Georgia’s shocking past is revealed; where Willow slips a “dear Andrew” letter in her husband’s notebook; and where Maude, who is undergoing treatment for cancer, continues to smoke up a storm, in every sense of that word. It is only a matter of time and the changing of the season before we are wondering who Maude is actually having an affair with; what will happen to Lafcad, who “can’t deal with employment;” or how it is exactly that he was pierced by an arrow during a fist fight between Andrew and Kap.
In this fearless ode to Southern perspicacity and penury, each of the performers seems to have been enlivened by the abstracted oddities of their character’s nature.
Standout is Rogers, who displays a special gift for maintaining his equilibrium under the most trying circumstances. Garrick is excellent as the ailing but affable Maude.
Goldenhersh, who made a terrific impression last season in “Doubt” (Tony nomination), took over the role of Georgia following the first preview. She uses that one wooden leg with hilarious aplomb. She’s a hoot as Georgia, the enigmatic runaway who ultimately finds her calling. And Marsh is delightful as the drifting Willow, who is otherwise steadfast when it comes to the only proper way to drink a Coca Cola. It is also a pleasure to watch DeKay, Haid, London, and Lynch commendably face the vicissitudes of their characters’ messy lives.
The production is notable not only for the way that director Peterson controls the havoc but also keeps a firm grasp on the more subtle emotional tremors that propel the characters. The four impressive sets are designed by Michael Yeargan and enhanced by Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting.
The outre relationships, events and their perpetrators herein dramatized give further proof why it is unlikely that the South will ever rise again, according to Henley, the reigning queen of Southern Gothic.
“Ridulous Fraud,” through Sunday, June 11, Berlind Theater at McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. 609-258-2787.