- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Widow clings

to man’s memory

in Haidle’s latest

Grief takes on many guises, although sexy is one you might not readily consider. In playwright Noah Haidle’s view, the beast with two backs is inescapable, even in death, and this struggle between carnal and suppressive life forces is exuberantly depicted in his play “Vigils.”

This is the kind of absurdist, randy work in which Woolly Mammoth excels, and the production, directed by D.C. newcomer Colette Searls, bursts with the off-color and off-kilter energy we’ve come to associate with the theater. It also exhibits the best use of the commodious new space since its opening last season. “Vigils” seamlessly employs theatrical effects, such as flying and layered projections without making it seem as if the designers are trying out a bunch of expensive new toys.

Mr. Haidle, in his mid-20s, a theater darling after his hit play “Mr. Marmalade,” is a refreshing change from many terribly serious young playwrights in that he eschews slice-of-life dramas in favor of something flagrantly imaginative and surreal. “Mr. Marmalade” deals with the complex, often disquieting imaginary friends of a 4-year-old girl, and “Vigils” also concerns itself with an oddball interior life. This time around, the focus is the Widow (Naomi Jacobson) of a firefighter who died two years ago trying to save a baby.

The Widow literally cannot let go of her dead husband, embodied by a chatty Soul (Michael Russotto) and a robust Body (Matthew Montelongo). Soul schlumps around the house, a mopey touchstone for the Widow’s apparently bottomless fount of memories. Body, on the other hand, is more active and alive than the other two put together, but he too is trapped by the limits of his wife’s recollections.

The menage a trois gets squared when the Widow is pursued by a Wooer (J. Fred Shiffman), an endearingly ill-at-ease guy who coughs up frequent advice and helpful favors from a passel of cousins. Caught between the possibility of real love — and sex — with the Wooer and revisiting and reshaping familiar territory, the Widow opts for a selfless act that liberates both the quick and the dead.

Expressions of grief and the transmigration of souls are rarely redolent of the whoopee cushion, but “Vigils” manages to be deeply rooted in emotion and raunchily funny at the same time. The humor is not so much crude as vigorously linked to the libido, a life force in itself. The production also features four extravagantly gifted comedians, and Miss Jacobson, Mr. Shiffman, Mr. Russotto and Mr. Montelongo bring loopy and potent physicality to their performances. Miss Jacobson’s interactions with Mr. Shiffman are the embodiment of having a head for business and a body for sin, and their near-sex scene — set to the music of “The Stripper” — is so hilariously abandoned that you alternately wince at the sight of them and applaud their nerve.

Mr. Montelongo winningly portrays an active man roomily at home in his body, and Mr. Russotto has the more contemplative role — after all, he is a lost soul — but his yearning and resentment are palpably real. Connor Aikin also has an affecting cameo as the young figment of the Body’s imagination.

“Vigils” falters only in the head-scratching ending, which falls prey to what is known as “The Christopher Durang Syndrome,” when a playwright writes himself into a corner and has no choice but to blow things up or make circumstances so bizarre and loaded with false whimsy that the audience fears there’s crystal meth in the lobby water fountains. Mr. Haidle chooses the latter, and what comes before in “Vigils” is bracing and skillful enough to make you believe that, in time, the right ending will present itself.

…1/2

WHAT: “Vigils” by Noah Haidle

WHERE: Woolly Mammoth, 641 D St. NW

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Feb. 25.

TICKETS: $32 to $52

PHONE: 202/393-3939

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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