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No Strings Attached

Latest Single Carrot production somehow entangles the superficially trite with the emotionally resonant

Gita Jabaily acts out.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 5/5/2010

Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake)

By Sheila Callaghan

Through May 23 at Single Carrot Theatre

Aldo Pantoja may be Single Carrot Theatre's resident grave absurdist. Think back to the productions Pantoja has directed (such as 2009's Slampooned!) or adapted (such as 2007's La Muñeca): SCT doesn't shy away from extremities, be they feelings or ideas, but Pantoja appears to be acutely tuned in to real-world emotions taking place in exaggerated states. Slampooned! skewered slam poetry, but just beneath the humor was a portrait of young people trying to figure out who they are. La Muñeca was even more surprising, a Christmas story about clichéd feel-goodness that never flinched away from feeling really, really bad.

New York playwright Sheila Callaghan's Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake) squarely hits Pantoja's gifts for sincere heaviness and batshit crazy. Pantoja directs this stripped-down, 90-minute one-act with a delicate balance of madcap comedy and nearly unbearable psychological damage. The story sounds as trite as an after-school special: One year after a Christmas accident irrevocably changed a young family, they're trying to get through holidays as best they can. Eleven-year-old Janice (Giti Jabaily) is the most traumatized, and her chef mother Clara (Genevieve de Mahy)--a tightly wound bundle of anxiety--seeks advice from her sister Barbara (Courtney Weber). There's conflict and humor and something along the lines of learning to endure by coming together--you know, the usual conventions of this plot--and it would all be just so precious and predictable if their apartment wasn't plotting to kill them.

Yes, the apartment. Callaghan personifies Clara and Janice's apartment (Brendan Ragan) as a stately old gent. Clad in striped yellow slacks suggestive of hardwood floors, a gold shirt and tie and paisley vest, and black top coat with tails with one sleeve a mix-and-match magenta velvet, Ragan's apartment looks like a gentleman from back in the day who has arrived at hard times. Such is the story he tells in a monologue about how he used to be so nice and regal when other women used to lived in the house; their knees used to touch his floors when they cared for him. Now, in December 2000, Clara nearly goes into a hyperventilating spasm whenever the apartment cries out for attention by rattling pipes or radiator coughing, and the apartment thinks Janice is a certifiable freak. And he thinks he'd be better off with some new tenants.

And, honestly, the apartment's take on Janice may be too kind. She socially ostracizes herself, doesn't bathe, holds tea parties with her dolls--where she drinks bleach and makes them verbally abuse each other--and, overall, acts like a possessed preteen. At one point, she even grabs two dolls and does her best Regan-with-the-crucifix-in-The-Exorcist. Jabaily has inhabited many different complex young women in SCT productions before, and Janice may be her most off-the-reservation yet. She lets loose with a Sybil medley of different voices when playing with her dolls, can scream like an infant, and occasionally cusses like a teenage boy. Worse, Janice's idea for making her mom and her happier is to make a homemade bomb to blow them to kingdom come rather than go on as they are.

Crumble dishes out what, exactly, happened the previous Christmas like an old cook guarding family recipes--in dribbling hints throughout, such that by the time it's actually revealed the what and how is less important than its overall effect. It's not a spoiler to point out that Clara, Janice, and Barbara live personal lives void of men, such that Clara and Janice imagine male figures. For Clara, that idealized man is Harrison Ford; for Janice, Justin Timberlake. Both are played with a contagious glee by Elliott Rauh, who dons a shiny shirt as Timberlake and an exaggerated deep voice as Ford, and in both instances he gamely bats double duty as sexual wish fulfillment and emotional crutch.

That's the uneven terrain that Crumble creates, where a nearly bottomless sadness is only partially wrapped by the irrational. And that tenuous existence gets its best realization in Weber's Barbara, a childless divorcee who, you come to realize, wanted a different life than the one she has. Weber's mix of the frighteningly vulnerable and the pathologically genteel becomes a straitjacket of conflict: If Joan Cusack and SNL's Church Lady gave birth to a prim spinster, it'd be Barbara, and in the monologue in which she runs through nearly all 57 of her cats' names, Weber fearlessly pulls the veil off of Barbara's personal emptiness while turning pauses into uncomfortable punch lines. Tragic comedy gold.

The whole play becomes such a whiplash mix of sentiments. It invites--and gets--you to laugh at childhood traumas and somehow makes you empathize with an apartment. It pushes dialogue repetitions from psychological tics into disarmingly moving memories. And it pulls off the rather impressive feat of making something as generic as the family overcoming adversity yarn into a subversively entertaining experience.

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