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The absurdist dark comedy of Goodnight Everything imagines the madmen in our midst

Towers of babble

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Jay O'Berski (left) and Jeffrey Detwiler as two conspirators in "Goodnight Everything." Lucius Robinson lurks in the background. - PHOTO BY JAY O'BERSKI
  • Photo by Jay O'Berski
  • Jay O'Berski (left) and Jeffrey Detwiler as two conspirators in "Goodnight Everything." Lucius Robinson lurks in the background.

Goodnight Everything

Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern
@ Golden Belt
Through July 18

Despite its gritty, grinning nihilism, playwright John Justice's intriguing new comedy, Goodnight Everything, seems strikingly in sympathy with an observation of St. Teresa—that more tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.

After all, Justice's hour-long, one-act play, itself something of a subtle revenge fantasy against Al Qaeda, merely constitutes the perfect gift for the extremist who has everything (or, at least, everything else): A hermetically sealed bunker in which to sit out the radioactive half-life of their successful nuclear attack—and the presence of their Beloved Leader, who offers constant, inescapable guidance, enlightenment and, um, comfort while they're confined together.

Suffice it to say, the scenario doesn't work out exactly as planned.

Jay O'Berski, Jeffrey Detwiler and Lucius Robinson have certainly mined existential—and comic—pay dirt in each other's company up to now. Several seasons after Detwiler and O'Berski helmed local playwright Michael Smith's remarkable A Mouthfulla Sacco and Vanzetti, the three ganged up for a notable Manbites Dog Theater production of Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman. Their new play takes inspiration from The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright's Pulitzer-winning study of the origins of Al Qaeda. Here, Detwiler and O'Berski play two quarrelling radical activists, whose names are reduced to the letters Q and Z (which may or may not be related to radical Islamists Sayyid Qutb and Ayman al-Zawahiri, who both figure prominently in Wright's book). After wordlessly deploying such homey comforts as jumbo packs of Cheese Doodles, toilet tissue and Spam from locker trunks in an initial scene set to music by Tom Waits, the pair is soon joined by Robinson as the mysterious O (Osama?), their charismatic, revolutionary chief.

Dressed in an impeccable white three-piece suit (one tellingly much more reminiscent of modern American televangelism than any emissary of Islam), Robinson's character remains a puzzle to his troops, an enigma that only deepens, along with their misgivings, as the long time-out goes on. His cryptic aphorisms cause O'Berski's Z to slap his forehead repeatedly in frustration in an early sequence, before scenes in which each follower tries to establish himself as the possibly less-than-great man's favorite.

Under Rus Hames' confident direction, Robinson's O remains poker-faced throughout, rarely tilting his mask to give us a sense of what lies underneath.

Indeed, the character of O deliciously recalls to this long-toothed theatergoer a certain character type that David Turkel and Curtis Eller, among others, created for Somnambulist Project, an early-'90s collective that was a main theatrical precursor to Little Green Pig. Such original shows as Crimson and Clover and Abe on a Hot Tin Roof (to which I contributed visual stage design) pivoted on various absurd yet poignant characters, each so relentlessly forward thinking and visionary that they were basically non-functional in everyday life. Those who remember those shows will find themselves in familiar company the moment Goodnight Everything's maximum commander has to awkwardly be shown how to use a toothbrush.

Despite the character similarities among the dysfunctional leaders in these three plays, Goodnight Everything focuses more on the psychopathology of the followers. Perhaps surprisingly, O and Z have a deep, constantly thwarted, need to bond emotionally. But in Goodnight Everything, Justice manages to examine, for a while, the psychopathology of two true believers without becoming preoccupied with the particular religious or political orientation of that belief. O'Berski's Z quickly says "I love him too," the moment after Detwiler's Q professes a deep—but clearly one-sided—tie with their somehow always-distant leader. Each follower shyly discloses intimacies he has shared with O: a tête-à-tête while watching videos of apparently memorable war atrocities in a little room over a cantina in Oaxaca; the meager but vividly relived courses of a private dinner for two in a bunker near an unnamed battlefield.

Ultimately, both awkwardly admit, "It always seemed like he was talking just to me."

The sharpest teeth in Justice's satire are bared during Q's tentative critique of the revolution's methods. He sums up the battle for hearts and minds with these words: "A story is like a little bomb... We want to educate as we terrify." In another place, both functionaries exult in the "miracles" their leader has assured them will occur in battle. "Yes, and after we die," one confidently says to the other, "the miracles will go right on happening." The closest thing any of these believers gets to a happy ending is the crushing irony of a dance piece set to a song by The Arcade Fire, the lyrics of which could have been crafted specifically for this show.

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