Every once in a while this critic finds himself going to a play that has received so much negative pre-opening commentary in the media, and in particular from bloggers, that it becomes a challenge to remain open and receptive. Interestingly, most of the negativity surrounding “Tricks The Devil Taught Me” has been rather evenly spread between comments about the play from members of the audience who attended early previews, and reports regarding the professional ethics and practices of its author, Tony Georges, who is also directing.
As my only interest is in reporting my response to the play, I can say that Georges has written a commendable play and that I had a rewarding experience in the company of a very fine cast as they portray a group of bible belt-ed folk whose main preoccupation is to find the most desperate, disingenuous, and distressing ways to survive in their small West Texas town.
With their hearts, minds, and souls relegated to a perpetual state of blissful ignorance, these are people who take great pride in their misguided religiosity, overt racism, and ever pervasive bigotry. They also are a ripe and ready source for dramatic and comedic inquiry, as insightfully observed by the playwright. Be assured that there is no mockery, only compassion and empathy in Georges’ uncompromising embrace of his characters.
Comprising 15 scenes not presented chronologically, the play takes place over a span of 23 years (1987 to 2010). Playing with time as much as he plays with eight God-intoxicated, gossip-mongering, unhappily hitched characters, two of whom are seen as their younger selves, Georges has written a slightly over-written (a good dramaturg could have helped with some judicious pruning) but engrossing pot-boiler that rarely loses steam as it careens to its rather shocking end.
It’s 1987 and Don (TJ Linnard) is a busboy at Barney’s Restaurant. He is taking a smoking break when his girlfriend, Betty (Julie Jesneck), arrives and wants to know if Don really loves her as she is (are we surprised?) pregnant. The action jumps to 2010 as the older Betty (now played by Beth Grant) and the older Don (now played by Peter Bradbury) are more at war than at peace with each other, reflecting a volatile past that will be revealed in flashbacks.
The present involves Don and Beth’s 23-year-old ne’er-do-well son Jeremy (TJ Linnard) who counts on his parents’ handouts to feed his wife and their baby. Apparently there is a plot afoot between the father and son, whose machinations are driven by a mutually shared desperation to escape from the lives they are living. Betty’s salvation seems to be in sharing a camaraderie with the ladies in her Bible study group that include the also unhappily married church soprano Lorraine (Jodie Lynne McClintock) and the gossip-monger Renee (Mary Testa) along with her effusive supporter Kim (played by Jesneck).
Grant gives a stunning, nerve-rattling performance as Betty, who helps us believe that her shrill and scatological responses to her husband’s ill-tempered indifference are her primary saving grace. Bradbury is also scarily effective as the resentful Don who never got over feeling of being trapped into the marriage. I was impressed by Jesneck’s performance as the young Betty whose early sweetness has evolved into bitterness when she discovers that her husband has not only been unfaithful with the pretty Mexican waitress/baby sitter (winningly played by Desiree Rodriguez) but planned on deserting her and their child.
The good-looking Linnard impressively segues as the young Don into the emotionally and physically enervated Jeremy who is torn between the strife between his parents. McClintock takes charge of the play’s funniest scenes, one in which she and Betty argue over the spelling of Betty’s grandson name Knick and why the K. Most puzzling is the egregiously over-the-the-top performance of Testa, who, as Lorraine, sashays precariously around in high heels while rolling her eyes, cackling and otherwise chewing up the easily digestible and easily transformable (to various locations) unit setting designed by Eli Kaplan-Wildmann.
There is in “Tricks the Devil Taught Me” a commendable attempt to capture and portray the underbelly of that segment of American society that has been famously defined in plays by Sam Shepard. It is also notable for the hilarious use and abuse of expletives that drive the plays of David Mamet. This is not to say that Georges’s play is obsessively derivative, but it is a trenchantly honest portrait of religion-obsessed, sadly unfulfilled people whose options are as limited as is the manner in which they communicate.
Without counting, but comprising more than half the dialogue are those all-purpose words “f—k” and “s—t,” and are as frequently deployed with the same force as is “hell” and “Jesus” in the same sentence. The fast and crackling dialogue does, in fact, provide most of the humor in a plot propelled by characters who flail their remorse and fan their regrets in the only way they know and in ways that have the potential for tragedy. As for Georges’s decision to direct, it’s a job that he accomplishes with often great acuity with respect to his characters’ volatile behavior; another director would certainly be more inclined to tighten the reins in just about every scene.
Your reaction to this play will depend upon your willingness to believe that there are people out there without a clue about how to take charge of their lives, and, more specifically, unable to disavow the brainless belief that their salvation will have to wait until they get to heaven — even if it is encrusted with rhinestones as implied by one of the women during an informal but formidable Bible study meeting.
“Tricks The Devil Taught Me,” open-ended engagement, Minetta Lane Theater, 18 Minetta Lane. $65 to $79. 212-307-4100.