- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 9, 2000


Canadian playwright George F. Walker's "Heaven" gives us a bitter taste of life here on earth and of the not-so-sweet hereafter in a work shot clean through with lacerating humor and hot anger.
Mr. Walker tackles racism and prejudice with gloves off. Fittingly, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz hurls us into the action with an intensely physical and pugilistic production that has, among other things, the actors kick boxing, stilt walking and street fighting.
The unbridled dialogue spews like hot lava from the actors' mouths, and Mr. Shalwitz matches this heat by keeping the cast constantly moving. Even when cast members are sitting, they are twitching or vibrating from sheer nerves. The effect is unsettling, to say the least, but electrifying as well.
If you don't mind having your comfort zone invaded, "Heaven" provides a spectacularly prickly night of theater. The setting is a city park in a neighborhood that is trying hard to be gentrified, but vestiges of street life stubbornly remain. Drug transactions take place in the park, and among its regulars are Derek (David Lamont Wilson), a desperate hustler, and his girlfriend, Sissy (Emerie Geiger Snyder), a junkie and street performer.
The park's most dangerous regular is Karl (Rich Foucheaux), a cop so twisted by the suicide of his partner that he decides to clean up the neighborhood in an extreme way. Strung out on amphetamines and increasingly falling apart, Karl is the most lethal of good cops gone bad. He doesn't care if he lives or dies, but before he goes, he wants to take undesirables down with him. Those undesirables include just about every ethnic and religious group that has integrated the city since the good old days when white people ruled the roost.
Karl's old friend from the neighborhood, Jimmy (Mitchell Hebert), isn't much better. Jimmy is an Irish Catholic human-rights lawyer who defends minorities for a living but outside the courtroom keeps up a nonstop diatribe. You have to give Jimmy this: He's an equal opportunity racist. No one is immune from his attacks, not even his wife, Judy (Naomi Jacobson), a Jewish documentary filmmaker.
Their marriage is headed for disaster, partly over Jimmy's combative personality and also because of Judy's going back into the fold as she grows closer to her rabbi, David (John Lescault), whom incidentally, Jimmy calls Sid.
Jimmy's explosive confrontations are bound to cause trouble, and they set off a bizarre and startling chain of events that affects everybody he encounters. The play goes between the park and heaven, which becomes increasingly populated the more Jimmy shoots off his mouth.
All of this may seem about as funny as a mugging, but Mr. Walker's crisply dark sense of humor, which is at times biting and at other times irrepressibly silly, keeps the play from turning into a lecture. "Heaven" is lightened by some amazing flights of fancy, some of which include Judy swinging in on a rope from a helicopter to literally beat some sense into her husband and a goofily magical Fred Astair-Ginger Rogers dance sequence featuring Judy and Derek.
Mr. Shalwitz obviously had a grand time staging these moments, and his enthusiasm catches on with the audience.
"Heaven" is also deeply human. With the exception of Karl, no one is really a monster. Jimmy has spent his whole life overcompensating for youthful prejudices, hoping that action will stop the racist thoughts seemingly implanted in his mind. David is a rabbi, a venerated figure in the community, who isn't sure he believes in God. Derek is a product of the streets who laments that his narrow existence has resulted in a tragic lack of dreams.
Speaking of dreams, these are ideal roles for actors, and the Woolly Mammoth cast responds with ferocious, unbridled performances. Mr. Herbert's Jimmy may be an inexhaustible garbage-mouth, but he lets us see the pain and the helplessness behind the amazing energy of Jimmy's invective. The performance may be scarily angry, but you find yourself unable to hate Jimmy. You just hate his racism.
Also harrowing is Mr. Foucheaux's Karl, a renegade cop who disintegrates in front of your eyes. Mr. Foucheaux allows us to wallow in Karl's evil so luxuriantly we can feel some of his dirt on our skin.
Clearly, the actor having some of the most fun is Miss Jacobsen as Judy. She gets the exuberant fantasy sequences: She gets to play a doctor, a silver-screen dancer and a kung-fu commando. Miss Jacobsen revels in every chance to make the character of Judy unexpected.
Mr. Wilson also goes beyond the stereotype of a street hustler to give us a man who is surprisingly tender, thoughtful and paralyzed with frustration.
The final dialogue, in which Jimmy achieves some sort of redemption, rambles on too long and so "Heaven" loses its momentum. Up to then, "Heaven" is a place we want to be, no matter how uncomfortable it may make us.

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WHAT: "Heaven"

WHERE: Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 1401 Church St. NWWHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, through Oct. 1

TICKETS: $16 to $29

PHONE: 703/218-6500

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