June 22, 2024

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‘Des Moines’ Review: Drowning in the Drink

A new production of Denis Johnson’s final play showcases many of his signatures: deadpan absurdism, misfit characters, heavy drinking and statements on the bleak fact of human mortality.

Theater Online: Here’s how you make a depth charger: Pour some beer into a jar or mug of your choosing until it’s about halfway full and then drop in a shot glass of whiskey. Then gird your loins, because this isn’t a drink for the delicate.

And yet the odd characters in “Des Moines,” which had its New York premiere on Friday night at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, can’t even use the depth chargers (as they call the drink) that they consume as an excuse for their peculiarities. The play, written by Denis Johnson and presented by Theater for a New Audience with Evenstar Films, drops a cast of characters into the depths and doesn’t try to reel them back in. Instead, we’re often the ones lost at sea.

Written before he died at 67 in 2017, “Des Moines” is Johnson’s ninth and final play. A celebrated novelist, short story writer, playwright and poet, he is best known for the novel “Tree of Smoke” and the short story collection “Jesus’ Son.”

“Des Moines” showcases many of his signatures: deadpan absurdism, misfit characters, heavy drinking and drug addiction, deception, and statements on the bleak, incontestable fact of human mortality.

In one scene in the play, Dan (Arliss Howard), a 60-something cabdriver in present-day Des Moines, sits at an oval table in the center of a rustic wood kitchen, where he asks his pastor Father Michael (Michael Shannon) to do him an unusual favor. “It’s an experiment,” Dan says. “I just want you to suddenly yell at me to wake up — that I’m dreaming.”

Though “Des Moines” unfolds across an evening and a morning in the Iowa home of Dan and his wife, Marta (Johanna Day), it may or may not be taking place in Dan’s imagination — or in a bizarre dream shared among its characters. Before the pastor appears, Dan recounts to Marta how he picked up a heavily made-up Father Michael for a ride outside a gay club on a Friday night, and how a woman named Mrs. Drinkwater (Heather Alicia Simms) keeps visiting him at work. She is a widow whose husband recently died in a plane crash nearby.

Nef and Michael Shannon in “Des Moines.”Credit…Travis Emery Hackett

But Dan and Marta seem as though they’re having different conversations: He’s jumping among the encounter with Father Michael; his conversations with Mrs. Drinkwater, whose husband Dan drove to the airport the morning of the crash; and the virtues of butter over margarine. She’s waiting for the chance to tell him about a serious diagnosis she has received.

Father Michael, Mrs. Drinkwater, Marta and Dan, along with the couple’s granddaughter, Jimmy (Hari Nef), a trans woman whose botched gender affirming surgery has left her using a wheelchair, all join together in seemingly endless rounds of depth chargers. This party turns from karaoke to table-banging, thrashing and sex in a kind of otherworldly bacchanal of troubled souls.

The dialogue is imbued with an uncanny disconnect; the characters feel so aloof that when they speak to one another, it’s as if they’re just shooting random phrases from the separate worlds each inhabits. In the middle of a conversation about Des Moines farmland, Father Michael says to Jimmy and Mrs. Drinkwater, “Sometimes the horror of my youth is so vivid — so near, so accessible, that I feel as if I just got plucked from it one minute ago.”

That’s Johnson’s phlegmatic dread, so casual yet biting. But “Des Moines” also lacks the precision of Johnson at his best; there’s a vague emptiness and mourning that underscores every bit of the play.

A program note mentions that Johnson and Arin Arbus, the director of this production, met in 2015 to workshop “Des Moines.” When asked if he would clarify the “mysterious and difficult” work, Johnson refused.

Arbus’s direction accommodates Johnson’s vagaries and quirks, so watching the production feels as if we’re being taken on a long, slow ride to a remote destination — only to arrive, unceremoniously, at nothingness.

There’s a tediousness to the production that somewhat diminishes its charms, the main one being the talented cast. Howard’s Dan is both disgruntled and likable despite himself and his low-key racism and homophobia; he rambles on about his dreams but refuses to dig any deeper, too frightened to address the hurt that he and others around him carry.

Day keeps Marta taut with an underlying sorrow and resentment that perfectly counter Dan’s uneasy evasions. As Jimmy, Nef brings more color to the character than is written; with a bit of boldness and mischief, she incites some of the night’s mania but then fades into the background. Simms’s performance is a constant surprise, full of buttoned-up restraint, and then wild desperation and touches of something like joy — or as close to that emotion as a woman thrown askew by grief can muster.

Shannon is hilariously awkward as Father Michael, lumbering around the stage with a flat-footed shuffle, his shoulders rounded and his pants pulled up an inch or two too high. He plays the pastor like a naïve child stuck in a grown man’s body, equally uncertain of his place in the play’s offbeat and mundane moments.

In Riccardo Hernández’s set design, the entrances and exits are what often draw the eye: Stage right, the kitchen side door leads out to a small landing and stairs that allow us to hear every entrant before we see them. At stage left, an interior hallway, we get brief peeks into the characters’ dispositions, as when Marta gently braces one hand against the wall — just the slightest hint of difficulty. And upstage, behind the kitchen, French doors open to reveal Jimmy’s space, a jamboree of multicolored Christmas lights and beaming ornaments in stark contrast to the rest of Dan and Marta’s demure home décor.

At some point in the midst of the show’s madness, Mrs. Drinkwater exclaims: “Everything is so ridiculous. It’s incredible.” It’s true — everything is ridiculous, and after an hour and 40 minutes, “Des Moines,” like a night spent drinking at home, ends with a stubborn lack of resolution. What do you get after getting sloshed one evening in the company of ridiculous weirdos? An incredible, senseless hangover.

Des Moines
Through Jan. 1 at Theater for a New Audience, Brooklyn; tfana.org. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.