Noah Haidle’s Rag and Bone derives its title from the concluding lines of William Butler Yeats’s poem “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”: Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.
The poem—the last stanza is an epigraph in the printed script—is about an artist whose creative juices have deserted him (the circus animals are a metaphor). Rag and Bone, a goulash of surrealism, fantasy, and absurdism, sporadically amusing and often confusing, feels like a dramatic version of an artist floundering for inspiration.
The central characters are George (Michael Chernus) and his brother Jeff, who run a ladder store. Jeff is enthusiastic about his work in an Up with People way. “I could sell a picture book to a blind man,” he tells George—a line that unfortunately rings false, since the dim but sweet-natured Jeff is too kind to do anything of the sort. Luckily, Matthew Stadelmann invests the role with a disarming innocence that makes Jeff the most sympathetic character.
George, meanwhile, is using the ladder store as a cover for selling illegally harvested hearts; he has told the gullible Jeff that they’re “widgets.” They’re quality hearts too: a pediatrician, a kindergarten teacher. Customers can even try them out. George performs the transplants himself, with the panache of Sweeney Todd—spasms of violence staged with arching spurts of blood by Sam Gold.
The latest person whose heart George has seized is a Poet (Henry Stram, chest bandaged bloodily, looking bewildered at his continued consciousness). He is befriended by a Hooker (Deirdre O’Connell, exuding shopworn sensuality and warmth) with a heart of you-know-what. The Poet and Hooker eventually cross paths with a Millionaire (David Wohl) dressed in top hat and tails, who wants a new ticker. “I can buy anything in the world but I can’t feel anything,” he tells George. “I want to feel the world, not just own it.”
Haidle’s use of archetypes is puzzling, and Gold’s production doesn’t clarify what the dramatist is getting at. Designer Oana Botez-Ban has decided the dress code for Millionaires is top hat and tails, but that also makes him look like a ringmaster—perhaps a private visual reference to Yeats’s poem?
Meanwhile, the Hooker's Pimp, who also goes by the nickname T-Bone, complains of being too kind-hearted for his business—even when he’s just smacked someone. Kevin Jackson deftly plays T-Bone’s surliness with just enough lack of conviction, but the towering black actor is flashily dressed by Botez-Ban in a white suit and hat, and plentiful gold chains. Unfortunately, among all the archetypes, a gaudily clad black man as Pimp reeks of bad taste.
Clearly the characters are all trying to find their way, and all are betrayed in some sense by their hearts, old and new. It’s unfortunate that Eric Shim’s sound design has percussion effect (perhaps a tympani) striking whenever one character punches another, effectively treating them as cartoons, since the actors manage on their own to keep a recognizable humanity in their character types.
Haidle’s talent for comic dialogue works only fitfully in this bittersweet work. One of the choicer exchanges occurs when George, who has kept his late mother’s heart in a cooler, wants a transplant of that heart. “The only problem is, I don’t know how to perform heart surgery,” says Jeff. Replies George: “I’ll talk you through it.”
But when the post-operative George, stocky and bearded, begins wearing a housedress and adopting his late mother’s alcoholism and smoking habits, it’s impossible to figure out what the point is. Or, at least, if there is a point that isn’t as obvious as: Love is unpredictable. Money can’t buy happiness. The heart betrays us all. Life is a bitch.