Hell Meets Henry Halfway
From Possessed, by Witold Gombrowicz
Adapted by Adriano Shaplin in collaboration with Pig Iron Theatre Company
Directed by Dan Rothenberg
Produced by Pig Iron Theatre Company at Woolly Mammoth Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Don’t listen to the hype! Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! This is no academic exercise, no somber meditation on the Art of the Clown. It’s spooky, shocking, and damn funny! It’s like Jean-Paul Sartre retold by Mel Brooks, and then performed by the Marx Brothers. It is a tragedy blown up a hundred times into a melodrama, and then blown up a thousand more times into a farce.
Consider: we are in the office of Henry Kholavitski (Dito van Reigersberg), a human parsnip who serves his ancient and demented prince (Bel Garcia), apparently in the expectation of inheriting everything when the old man finally kicks. The room is lit in a dim greenish light. Henry looks like he’s underwater. The same dolorous progression of notes plays over and over again. It will play for virtually the entire play. Henry jumps rope and then checks his pulse. It looks for all the world as if he’s trying to figure out whether he’s alive.
The door at the rear of the office opens, and we are in a crowded train. In the upper berth, Walchak (Gabriel Quinn Bauriedel) is denouncing God, the Government, and anyone who has ever contributed to his present miserable condition. He goes on at formidable length, concluding by informing God, or the Government, of his requirements: two bottles of vodka, and two attractive women to massage his cramped shoulders, preferably with a particularly sensitive part of their anatomies.
The door closes, then opens, and we meet Maya (Sarah Sanford) in the lower berth. She has her own list of complaints, as lengthy and extravagant as Walchak’s. Apparently men do not love her as vigorously as they should. They are too lazy to be the ardent, obedient instruments of her pleasure they would be if nature was in proper order. And so on. Then the door closes, and Dr. Peter Hincz (Steve Cuiffo) appears on the top of the train. He has his own lament, which he punctuates with a wonderful collection of hacks, coughs, spits, gurgles, belches, belly rumbles, and other delightfully disgusting sounds which suggest that the inside of his body has turned into a MixmasterTM. Walchak, Maya and Hincz riff on the horror of modern life at such length that it appears we are watching a Christopher Guest mockumentary on existentialism. Eventually, we see that they are all going to the same place – Henry’s dark, icy castle. Hincz will treat the Prince. Walchak will give tennis lessons. And Maya is Henry’s fiancée.
These characters – and I include Jon the Ballboy (James Sugg), who appears to be a large puppy with human features – are so fabulously disagreeable that you cannot help but cheer the paint-peeling invective with which they bathe each other. Henry and Maya are particularly good at it, but periodically they remember that they are engaged and thus force themselves to mouth sweet expressions and other pleasantries. They do this with all the feeling of press officers reading corporate statements of regret, or of high school students reading reports they ripped off the internet that morning. Witold Gombrowicz, from whose novel this play is derived, once said, “I do not experience emotions other than in quotation marks.” This is half-true for Henry and Maya: their every decent sentiment is scripted, but their hatred and disgust for each other is spectacularly authentic.
Maya has no need to observe these niceties with Walchak, and she douses him from the beginning with verbal Napalm, which he returns enthusiastically. Think Oscar Wilde, if Wilde had written about, say, serial killers instead of minor aristocrats.) It is clear that the angry words which fly between them are entirely impersonal. Maya and Walchak hate because they love to hate; hatred is in their nature, and indeed, expressing hate without inhibition soon becomes erotic. At the last, their love, and hate, is bathed in the blood of an innocent animal in a perversion of Old Testament sacrifice.
Not a great deal happens in Hell Meets Henry Halfway, but I was nonetheless grateful that Hell was willing to make the trip. Pig Iron developed this play through improvisation, but nothing about the production looks improvised. Every tic, every snort, every swallow and exclamation comes in at precisely the right moment. The repeated minor progression of notes becomes a sort of metronome, and the play is never out of time. Moreover, the actors are never out of character, and the characters are never anybody but themselves. Among an outstanding cast, Cuiffo merits special mention. His coughing, spitting medico is a wonder of comic timing. There is a moment in the first Act when, hoping for a drink, he stares at Henry, who studiously ignores him. The moment stretches on; Hincz googles his eyes in an apparent effort to melt Henry’s heart. It is unsuccessful. Hincz screws up his face further. Henry writes in his notebook and takes a sip of his vodka. Not since Chaplin has silence been so hilarious.
Hell Meets Henry Halfway is as delightful as sin; as pleasing as a self-righteous politician caught in a sex scandal, as wonderful as seeing your high school disciplinarian in a drunken brawl. It’s like…oh, who cares what it’s like? Just go see it.
Running Time: 2:00 with one 15 minute intermission.
When: Wednesdays through Sundays until March 1. Sundays are at 2 and 7; all other shows at 8. No matinee on Sunday, February 8. Note: starting with the February 18 performance, James O. Dunn will play the role of Walchak.
Where: Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC.