Rantoul and Die -- Theater Review

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

A new play that surpasses its advance billing -- "a romantic comedy wrapped in razor wire" -- is rare. Mark Robert's "Rantoul and Die" is such a play, and razor wire is the least of the images this strange comedy takes to heart.

Roberts has written a vicious but delicious pit bull of a play that starts out with a menacing growl, shifts to a loud bark and finally bites off anything within reach. The humor is of the blackest variety -- blunt, raw and reckless. There are intimate descriptions and descriptions of intimacies that had the audience howling with delight -- much of it coming from the female sector and for good reason. Roberts is not a bashful writer, apparently putting to good use what he's learned as a writer-producer for the hit TV series "Two and a Half Men."

The setting is Rantoul, Ill., a small, quiet town full of dead-end jobs and dead-end lives lived in the shadow of the local Dairy Queen. This is Sam Shepard and Tracy Letts territory, where desperation, violence and lunacy are just a smile and a dirty look away. The four characters we meet, under the right circumstances, couldn't be friendlier. But put a little alcohol, pot (Rantoul rag), boredom or regret into their maple syrup, and they're liable to feed you to the cats, which one character already seems to have done.

The play begins with a suicide attempt by Rallis (Rich Hutchman), whose wife, Debbie (Cynthia Ettinger), is filing for divorce. No special reason -- Debbie just can't stand the sight of her hopeless, helpless, sexually inadequate husband anymore. Rallis' much smarter buddy Gary (Paul Dillon) rescues him from the wrist-slashing episode and tries to talk some sense into him, but it's clear that Rallis' misery has nowhere to go but down.

Before the play is over, Rallis has lost an ear lobe, become a human vegetable attached to a pee-bag and sat through most of an act with a brown paper bag over his bandaged head. As for the other characters, what we learn about them isn't a darn sight prettier. The fourth character, Callie (Lisa Rothschiller), the manager of the Dairy Queen where Debbie works, is the scariest of the lot. Her prim and proper demeanor hints at a darkness inside that eventually emerges in chilling -- no, make that grotesque -- detail.

Roberts writes dialogue that crackles with energy and the sort of home-grown idiomatic earthiness that tickles your ear. The uglier these people behave, the funnier they get in a sad kind of way.

Director Erin Quigley has asembled a dream cast that rips into the rich material with the gusto it deserves. Dillon's Gary is as unpredictable as a rattlesnake, while Ettinger's Debbie can go from desperate to deadly to dumbfounded in the blink of an eye. Rothschiller captures the tangle of contradictions caused by too much repression and too little pleasure in certain small-town types. Hutchman is everything his weak-kneed character is supposed to be and less.

The curious thing about "Rantoul" is that the more bizarre the characters act, the easier it becomes to identify with their plight. Perhaps in the final analysis, Rantoul is more a state of mind than a geographical place. No wonder Roberts, in a program note, described writing this personal play as akin to "birthing an 80-pound snapping turtle that was wearing a spiked collar and a crown of thorns." That explains it. In the words of poet Robert Graves: Goodbye to all that.

Venue: Lillian Theater, Hollywood (through July 4)
Cast: Paul Dillon, Cynthia Ettinger, Rich Hutchman, Lisa Rothschiller
Playwright: Mark Roberts
Director: Erin Quigley
Production designer: David Harwell
Costume designer: Mary T. Quigley
Sound designer: Matt Richter
Fight coordinator: Ned Mochel