A dangerous storm, Evelyn, is bearing down on the characters in David Thigpen’s Hurricane Party, but the more immediate threat to their existence arises from their own behavior. Opening on a steamy sex scene, Maria Dizzia’s production is suffused with an eroticism often associated with a hot climate, akin to that of the film Body Heat. The characters in the scene, Dana and Macon (Kevin Kane and Sayra Player, respectively), are entering middle age and at a crossroads. Each is married to another person, and, in Macon’s case, it’s Todd, Dana’s best friend. She and Dana have been conducting an affair for “two years and three months,” and now he plans to spirit her away within the week for a future together.
A good deal of Thigpen’s play is familiar territory: two couples with marital problems who meet for a night that turns into alcohol-fueled games (the “party” half of the title) harks back to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? He has added a third couple—a gabby young grocery clerk, Tabby (Lacy Marie Meyer) and the woman she is apparently dating, Jade (Toni Lachelle Pollitt, who makes one of the rare monologues in the piece riveting). The action is set in present-day South Carolina, so the fact that Jade is black startles but doesn’t disturb Macon when the pair arrive at her home to ride out the storm. (However, Tabby’s inviting herself to the home of someone she met that morning seems a stretch.)
Thigpen’s play turns out to be good old-fashioned Southern melodrama. It’s not Southern Gothic, about forlorn mansions and hanging cypresses, like some of Tennessee Williams or the film Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, but rather about adultery among the working classes living a step or two above trailer parks. Yet even if its setting and structure are overworked—a bout of games-playing brings events to a climax—the play is skillfully plotted (although the “pregnancy” of Dana’s wife, Caroline, might also be regarded as a steal from Edward Albee) and splendidly acted. Under Dizzia’s direction, there’s an atmosphere of oppression and simmering unhappiness among the characters. Whether the play has a more universal message than “Don’t stick with a failed marriage” or “Don’t cuckold your best friend” is less apparent.
Macon is by turns frustrated, appeasing and open in Player’s crucial central performance. At one point, Macon asks Todd to scratch her back, but he doesn’t; it’s apparent that she’s starved for some physical affection. Michael Abbott Jr. as Todd invests his character with decency but also an annoying loudness. One can see why Macon is tired of Todd’s boisterous, overbearing personality. Although Todd verges on a macho caricature—he shows more concern for his missing dog, Taco, and he knows his way around guns and drills—Abbott delivers a sympathetic portrait.
Kane is persuasive as Dana, a man who is unsure of his own good looks; he thinks he has unattractive, “hamster eyes,” though in real life he’d be considered a catch. Dana is good at math and excelled in school, but Kane balances the character’s confidence and intelligence with a sense of entrapment and unease. Booker Garrett has the most thankless role as Caroline but shines in a telephone monologue.
Thigpen, himself a native of South Carolina, evokes the place vividly. Even while heavily in debt to other plots, his yarn is intriguing. He creates an atmosphere of repression and sexual frustration, but he also suggests slyly that Todd may have a yen for Dana in spite of his complaint of a stale marriage bed. He may also be interested in Jade. Indeed, Todd declares, “I’m fulla love n’ whiskey and thoughts of alla us bein’ like a sweet family doin’ naked things…” Meanwhile, Meyer’s Tabby seems to be attracted to Macon.
Thigpen seasons this hothouse gumbo with humor. At one point, spotting a portrait of Saint Nick by a well-known painter as the subject of a jigsaw puzzle, Dana comments, “Ah. Norman Rockwell.” To which Tabby responds, “It’s Santa Claus, stupid!”
Frank Oliva creates three distinct rooms in the cramped space at the Cherry Lane Studio, and Miriam Nolifa Crowe’s fluctuating lighting deftly encompasses night, flashlight, electrical failure and lightning. Though the actors care about their characters, the play’s end feels abrupt and, even though tragedy has been foreshadowed somewhat, a surprise. Still, Hurricane Party proves to be a solid calling card for the playwright’s dramatic skills.
The Collective NY production of Hurricane Party runs through Oct. 21 at the Cherry Lane Theatre Studio Stage. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 3 p.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday. For tickets, call OvationTix at (866) 811-4111 or visit cherrylanetheatre.org.