By Stanford Friedman
I felt a little dirty after seeing Adam Rapp’s disturbing new drama, The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois; like I had just spied on an unfortunate man for the pleasure of watching him suffer, like I had been manipulated into thinking that a good guy was up to something bad. Fortunately, without any essential message to impart, it’s a play that is easy enough to shower off.
From the start, something seems wrong with Ellis (William Apps). We find him in his sad apartment nervously picking invisible nits from the carpeting, freshening up his deodorant and, ominously, toying with a hammer. Then his guests arrive. They are Monique (Susan Heyward) and Catherine (Katherine Reis), two teenage girls who are clearly up to something. Amid their awkward talk, there is discussion of money changing hands, while Monique curses at will and tries to shock Ellis every chance she gets. Then the discussion turns to music. There is a fine line between a play that takes its time and a play that creeps, and Rapp tests that difference here when Ellis puts an album on his turntable and plays a five-minute-long plodding country western song called “I Don’t Think Much About Her No More.” No one speaks during this gloomy interlude, and the only movement is Monique mockingly dancing along. But it works, successfully affirming the almost surreal, moody atmosphere of the play, though making Monique even less likable than she was already.
With no especially deep meaning to this work, to spell out the plot reversal that takes place is to leave little left to enjoy. Suffice it to say that Ellis is more victim than predator, and his relationship with Catherine is deeper than what Rapp would have us imagine at first blush. I will mention that, in his most tragic moments, Ellis confuses children with cats, which purr-haps explains why he prefers not to call Catherine by her nickname, Kit.
At its core, this is a play about Ellis and Catherine. Monique is around simply to be a threat, just as, later on, Ellis’s cohort, Barrett (Connor Barrett), comes around to be a salve. To further drive home their duties, the characters all have their own physical objects to serve as symbols of their condition. Catherine frequently uses an inhaler to remind us that she’s damaged. Barrett saves the day with his auto-injector pen. Monique doesn’t need a weapon to be menacing, but she has one nonetheless (I won’t reveal what she’s packing, but let’s just say she finally does succeed in shocking Ellis.). Ellis keeps getting his hammer, which turns out to be a running gag that draws only uneasy laughs, but he also has an intense relationship with his living room floor lamp which, like him, is bright and slightly bent.
Mr. Apps turns in a quietly powerful performance, transitioning Ellis from ominous loner to damaged soul, changing the nature of how we worry about him. Ms. Reis, too, finds warmth and sympathy in a role that starts off cold and silent. But Ms. Heyward fails to find any depth, or much-needed humor, in Monique, making her an irritant on stage. And Mr. Barrett would have been fine in his brief role, which features a perfectly executed spit-take, had not Rapp directed him to stand downstage at one crucial point, obstructing the view for the right side of the audience as some crucial action was taking place behind him in the partially enclosed kitchen.
That kitchen, in a set designed by Andromache Chalfant, is just one big sightline problem; difficult to see into and also effectively blocking some of the audience from seeing whatever it was taking place in the upstage rear hallway and bedroom. If only Ellis had taken his hammer to that.
The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois – Written and directed by Adam Rapp.
WITH: William Apps (Ellis), Connor Barrett (Barrett), Susan Heyward (Monique) and Katherine Reis (Catherine).
Scenic design by Andromache Chalfant, costume design by Jessica Pabst, lighting design by Keith Parham, sound design by Christian Frederickson; production stage manager, Jillian M. Oliver. Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th St., www.atlantictheater.org, 866-811-4111, Through June 26. Running time: 90 minutes without intermission.