"Rag and Bone"
Long Wharf Theatre, Stage II, New Haven
“Rag and Bone,” now making its debut at Long Wharf’s Stage II, will not be to every one’s taste. But if you tolerate its mix of realistic gore and surreal events, it offers a wild journey. In fact, this new play by Noah Haidle could have been written only by a very young person. (No surprise that Haidle, age 25, is still a student at Juilliard School.) There is a childlike quality to this highly imaginative piece. There are no holds barred. People climb ladders to the moon, mothers return from the grave, and hearts are easily stolen—literally—and may be replaced by other hearts. Operations are performed painlessly, sometimes without anesthesia. At the same time, it’s all a bloody mess, with scalpels freely wielded and bloody sheets draping the stage. “Rag and Bone,” with this mix of fantasy, blood, yearning and mommy, reminds me of stories concocted by my four-year-old grandson Ethan!
What is it about? Two brothers, George and Jeff, maintain a store where ladders are sold. George, the elder, cares for his brother Jeff, who is, as they say, “a little slow.” The sale of ladders is only a front for George’s real business, which is a brisk black market trade in hearts. He has a picnic cooler which stores the hearts he has stolen. With each heart replaced by George comes a total change in the patient’s persona. The heartless millionaire becomes a poet, George himself becomes his dead mother, and so on.
So much for story. But underlying this tale is a strong theme—namely, that one must have a heart to be truly alive, truly human. Haidle’s hearts are a metaphor for human beings. His millionaire is miserable and without feeling--without heart specifically. His beggar, inundated in feeling, is enraptured by the world about him. In this respect, this theme—namely, that money does not buy happiness—is certainly simplistic. And we would also fault Haidle for suggesting that the opposite (lack of money makes for happiness) is true.
Yet one enjoys this young playwright’s fresh, unique voice—often funny and always wildly improbable. The play works well in the first act, with its absurdities pounding the audience relentlessly. But the second act gets lost in aimless wandering, with hearts bouncing about like ping-pong balls and confusion reigning supreme.
As to the production itself, director Tina Landau has an unerring feeling for the piece, as she slides panels about and opens plastic curtains for each new scene. G. W. Mercier’s set, with panels, curtains, operating tables, and ladder, are also right on target. And “Rag and Bone” has a first-rate cast, topped by Justin Hagin (hilarious as George’s mother) and Annie Golden (delicious as The Hooker).
In all, Noah Haidle is a promising playwright, one to watch. But there are likely to be as many theatergoers who will dislike the play as those who admire it.
-- Irene Backalenick
Feb. 11, 2005