“It’s so cutting edge it’s practically illegal,” one character says of the play they’re working on in Bingo With the Indians. “It’s like diamond-edged, Mom. That’s about as close as you can get to naming it.” Bingo, written and directed by Adam Rapp, indeed deserves credit for its bold style. The problem with plays that have edge, however, is that they can occasionally leap off them. With all its unbridled electricity, Bingo runs in many directions without ultimately choosing one.
The play is powerfully aggressive in every way. Its language revolves around cruel fighting or chilling manipulation, its movement is explosively violent, and its characters are malicious to the core. In fact, Bingo has such a confrontational tone that it occasionally feels like a direct assault on the audience. This is not unintentional. As the plot centers on three members of a struggling East Village theater company, the line between reality and drama is consistently blurred.
The “company” – director Dee, actor Stash, and stage manager Wilson – are trying to scrounge some funds for their latest production. Their solution: steal the cash from a small-town New England bingo game. The New Yorkers don’t take kindly to the local atmosphere and despise the theatrically impaired townies.
The unfortunate outsider who comes into their motel room is Steve, a sheepish 19-year-old whose parents own the place. He, it turns out, is “secretly interested” in theater and dreams of living in the big city like his visitors. Stash is merciless toward Steve, taunting him, roughing him up, and eventually stealing his watch.
The poor teen is so lonely that he still craves his bullies’ friendship. As Steve, Evan Enderle is absolutely fantastic. Thanks to Enderle’s perfect body language (hunched shoulders, anxious bouncing) and tone (every statement comes out like a hesitant question), Steve practically sweats a palpable blend of desperation and vulnerability. Watching him get bullied is tragic and emotionally draining. Most, it seems, for Enderle: at curtain call, the actor looked absolutely exhausted.
The play really hits its stride when Stash and Dee go to pull off the heist, leaving Steve and Wilson in the room. Wilson gets the amateur actor to read a script with him – one that happens to include nudity. Thanks to Rob Yang’s restrained performance, Wilson’s sexual manipulation of Steve is at once deeply disturbing and freakishly academic. Enhancing the interaction, Yang speaks in the kind of deadpan voice that’s usually reserved for psychiatrists or conscience-lacking serial killers (think Kevin Spacey in Se7en).
The other characters lack this depth, and the play’s poignancy (and point) seems to wither away after they return. They trade barbs that might make Mamet blush, but their dialogue and personalities become grating when they don’t go any further from there.
Since the only compassionate character is someone who works outside the theater community, it would seem that Rapp is making a point about how a life spent playing pretend might detach someone from reality. The three company members in Bingo assume new identities with names such as “Big Daddy” and hide in their new characters, betraying previous promises with disclaimers like, “I was acting. That’s what we do in the theater.”
However, it’s hard to imagine that working in theater would make anyone as ruthless as Bingo’s thugs. A bloody attack (a “company fight call”) that comes toward the end is inexplicably brutal – even by the angry standards established by earlier scenes.
Things spiral out of control from there, thanks to a bizarre Native American song and dance, and a rambling monologue.
The final lines, directed at the audience (returning to the play’s exploration of reality vs. theater), are a clever reprisal of earlier dialogue between Wilson and Steve. The latter commands, “Smile…Unsmile.” With its seesawing between dark comedy and all-out nihilism, it’s never quite clear which expression Bingo With the Indians wants us to make.