Despite the seemingly predictable setup of its initial premise, Joseph C. Ernst’s Goodbody cleverly subverts expectations. It opens on the striking image of a young woman waking up over a dead body, with a smoking gun in her hand and no memory of what happened just moments before. In the corner of the barn sits a man, bound in a chair—the only person who can help her remember. While this all seems like the makings of your average Quentin Tarantino-esque revenge fantasy, such appearances can be deceiving.
After a shaky start, the play eventually finds its groove over the next hour or so, displaying an interesting dichotomy of its own to rival that of its characters. Stuck together, the gun-wielding Marla (Amanda Sykes) and chair-bound Spencer (Raife Baker) must each rely on the word of the other as means of escape from their unusual predicament.
Marla: You had me running around out there like I’m the Hardy Boys, thinking some big bad guy was gonna find us, and the whole time you were just trying to get the gun! Holy smoke.
Spencer: There is a big bad guy!
Marla: How do I know you aren’t the big bad guy?
All this is further complicated by the entrance of bumbling cop-turned-mobster Charlie Aimes (Alex Morf), who longs to be taken seriously, only to be comically undermined by his ever-constant need to unsheathe his gun from its holster (as well as by Spencer’s equally constant need to call Aimes by his vulgar childhood nickname).
Rounding out the cast of characters is the omnipotent Chance O’Leary (Dustin Charles), one-half of the O Brothers, a prominent family of Irish mobsters. In a grotesque game of show-and-tell, each vacillates between trust and doubt. Through a series of misunderstandings, a pattern begins to emerge as each character’s façade slowly fades away and all hell breaks loose.
As the play’s oddball trio of small-time criminals, actors Sykes, Baker and Morf each create a believable dynamism between them, buoying Ernst’s often nonsensical, hilarious dialogue (not an easy feat considering the various acts of violence they commit against one another throughout). Morf, in particular, provides some much-needed levity as the naive and eager-to-please Aimes—especially in scenes shared with Baker, whose Spencer acts as a quick-witted foil to his counterpart. As for Sykes, her Marla walks the line between innocent airhead and ravenous avenger with comedic ease; while Charles’s cherub-faced Chance deliciously serves both morality and malice, at once reminiscent of many a crime boss before him. (Lukas Haas in Brick and Ralph Fiennes’ Harry in In Bruges, for instance, spring to mind.)
From physical façades to actual façades, Matthew McCarren’s set and lighting design help to not only bolster its theme of hiding in plain sight, but its claustrophobic atmosphere, as well. Taking its cue from the film world, McCarren’s subversion of the ordinary in his use of farming tools as deadly weapons helps to add stakes to the trio’s situation, especially once Chance makes his entrance. Under Melissa Firlit’s direction, the actors’ make effective, economical use of the small stage, taking advantage of McCarren’s inclusion of a ladder, one of many key props for the plot at its center. And the action in this dark comedy, whether it’s the initial, heart-pounding gunshot or the somewhat comical showdown, is helped by Cliff Williams’ fight direction, with each sequence inciting in the audience both gasps and giggles alike.
With its deftly crafted humor amid literally stomach-curdling violence, Goodbody successfully pays homage to the action-comedy genre with unabashed, bloody brio.
Goodbody plays through Nov. 4 at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th St., between Park and Madison, Manhattan). Evening performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For ticket information, visit 59e59.org.