The title of Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder’s play Fresh Kills doesn’t refer to any recent murders, but that doesn’t mean her characters aren’t up to some very bad things. Director Isaac Byrne navigates a performance of palpable tension to show the dark places to which some people are capable of going, but while he is adroit at bringing the what of the play to life, Wilder’s failure to provide the why makes for a frustrating, though not unrewarding, evening. Occasionally, a show starts off strong but loses steam. That is not the case here, however. Fresh essentially begins in medias res; it starts in the middle of the action. The play finds its characters at a dramatically compelling crossroads, but fails to explain how they got there or where they are headed. It’s a great middle, but still in search of a beginning and end, the dramatic equivalent of an Oreo cookie with only the marshmallow stuffing.
Fresh Kills, playing at 59E59 Theatres, actually refers to the name of the Staten Island town where blue collar family man Eddie (Robert Funaro) lives with his wife, Marie (Therese Plummer). As far as we can tell, Marie is a compassionate, understanding wife, still in love with her husband, whose main concerns seem to be raising their child, keeping their house up and paying their bills.
Which is why it comes as a surprise to find Eddie picking up Arnold (Todd Flaherty), an underage male hustler, in his pick-up truck after finding him in a gay chat room. Is Eddie acting out on latent homosexual urges? Is he depraved? Merely curious? Wilder never clues the audience in as to what has drawn Eddie to seek out Arnold in the first place, or for how long he has been trolling the websites.
Nor does she adequately explain what lands Arnold in Eddie’s car. It is difficult to make heads or tails of what transpires between Eddie and Arnold, because their encounters never add up to a full affair. Then, before you know it, Arnold has ingratiated himself into Eddie’s family. Without seeing or knowing too much about Arnold’s home life, it is impossible to take him at his word, and so we never know if he is looking for a substitute family to replace his own disappointing one, merely pursuing his own sexual impulses, or if he is a deranged sociopath.
Flaherty fits the role physically – the dodgy look in his eyes suggests danger and instability – but the actor has a habit of garbling many of his lines and not always making the dialogue his own. Funaro, on the other hand, overcomes Wilder’s script deficits to peel back the layers of a confused, flawed man. While Wilder never provides sufficient context to explain how Eddie lands himself in such a threatening situation, Funaro does a brilliant job of showing Eddie’s agony with his current plight. It is a performance that is completely open and honest. Plummer, meanwhile, matches Funaro scene for scene in a resourceful performance that constantly stretches beyond mere “beleaguered wife” stereotypes.
Jared Culverhouse rounds out the ensemble in the pivotal role of Nick, caught in the middle as both Eddie’s best friend and Marie’s brother. Nick is a sea of volcanic rage, protective of Eddie yet loyal to Marie. His work further energizes the whole play (very well-paced by Byrne), and his versatility – dancing between comic relief and vitriolic intensity – textures what otherwise could have been a one-note work.
Byrne is to be complemented for staging such an arresting work in an intimate space (the audience sits on either side of the truck in the center of the theater), and Jake Platt’s lighting design goes a long way toward establishing the mood. Nonetheless, Wilder’s structure leaves many questions unanswered in Fresh. Wilder wants to explore what happens to people who pursue interests that run far afoul of what is considered acceptable by mainstream society, yet there remains far more territory to excavate.