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Mismanaged Anger

Top Floor’s Tale of Insanity is Maddening in More Ways Than One

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 2/9/2005

By John Becker

At the Top Floor Theatre through Feb. 19

Jack Horner (Zak Jeffries) is mad—and in multiple senses of the word. A routine trip to the mall ends with his pregnant wife a victim of a senseless shooting. She now resides in a hospital ICU, while her husband has taken up residence in an anger-fueled realm of revenge and restitution. He’s a button-down Dirty Harry engaging in a self-styled brand of gun-barrel eugenics. “Evolution by elimination” is how he describes his one-man war on an uncaring, crass, and violent world. The titular “last sacred place” appears to be the womb these days, for once an infant emerges to face lackadaisical parenting and crap culture, in Jack’s eyes, it’s just an unseemly slide to the grave.

So like, yeah, he’s mad. And also a mass murderer. Dubbed “The Evolutionary” and set afire by the slogan “so many assholes, so little time,” our anti-hero has already killed a slew of folks deemed “obstacles” to human evolution when the play opens.

Jack’s terror tale unfolds through his discussions with Ray Goldman (a low-boil Richard Fawley), an earnest if inexperienced reporter Jack has invited into his hideout to function as a kind of father confessor. While waving a chrome-plated pistol about, Jack wistfully reflects back on his upbringing: an Ozzie and Harriet world of personal responsibility and innocence. One first assumes Jack is the prototypical Angry White Man, a disciple of the reactionary rants spewing daily from the AM radio band. But then his first victims are a trio of NRA honchos, who burst on the scene in a fast-paced flashback. All named Bob (and played with delightful slickness by Joe Corgan, Aaron White, and Brad Mullaney), the rifle-heads think Jack is one of them—united behind the concept “we need more guns pointed at the right people.”

When Jack dispatches them, we have to rethink his insanity. This is also what Ray is doing as Jack’s sick soliloquy spews forth. At times Ray seems bent on getting an epic scoop, at other times he’s trying to talk Jack off the ledge. Often he seems afraid for his own life. But we’re never quite sure what Ray’s motivation is for taking on this dangerous duty. He ends up serving largely as a wide-eyed straight man.

The pacing doesn’t help, especially early on when there are numerous silent and actionless pauses. The gaps, though perhaps designed to build tension, only slow things down. Almost as if conscious of these soundless, stilted moments, later on director W.M. Yarbrough III—perhaps on cue from the playwright, perhaps not—interjects some modern classical music into the proceedings. The addition of urgent, looping strings comes off as contrived, highlighting the dialogue disruptions, not filling them in. The freewheeling Bobs, who burst in twice more—first as breezy Jerry Springer-esque TV producers and finally as beer-swilling poker players bashing parenthood—serve to underscore the play’s more turgid moments. Their blustery backslapping cross-talk, though cliché at times, is a welcome bit of life in a work resting uneasily on a killer/confessor relationship that never quite gels.

Zak Jeffries gives a seamless performance as Jack, but he needs to ratchet up the menace a bit. Fawley, wedged into an oddly undersized blazer, never seems quite sure of himself—a reflection, perhaps, of a murky role.

The Last Sacred Place is the work of Annapolis playwright John Becker. Big ups to the Top Floor for opening its stage to local voices. Writing about madmen, however, is both liberating and problematic. Madness, after all, needs some method. A madman can be forgiven the illogic of fighting the proliferation of violence with more violence, but Jack’s wrath needs a more fathomable target if we’re to come away with an understanding of its origin.

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