Tuesday, August 05, 2008


When the war comes home to America, it won't be with a whimper or a bang: it'll be with fries. That's the beauty of Eliza Clark's darkly comic Edgewise, in which three normal teens (i.e., pot is smoked, curses are flung, and balls—"big psychic balls"—are what it's all about) find their everyday Saturday morning shift at the local (Mc) Dougal's interrupted by an air strike and a bloodied stranger, Louis (Jedadiah Schultz). The whiff of bombast is bombed away with surgical precision, forcing the characters to grow up rather quickly, their mundane ramblings quickly turned to panicky attempts to restore order to their safe little world.

For Ruckus (David Gelles Hurwitz), a violent fabulist, Louis's arrival is an opportunity to safely back up his psychotic facade (he wants a gun "Uh, to kill people. To look at. To stroke."). Faster than a short-order cook can grill a burger, he's interrogating Louis like a hopelessly miscast action-film cop: "I'm aware of the way these things work," he says, and then later, "I think you know that I'm about to get mean. That you better start telling the truth or things are gonna get kind of bad for you." Thanks to Daniel Zimmerman's clever set design, which contrasts this dimly lit storeroom with the cheery dining area, we also get to observe Marco (Justin Levine) and Emma (Jessica Howell), trying to cope with the situation. It's a direct manifestation of the script's meditation on what a Civil War on Terror between an indistinguishable Us and Them might look like: an order of paranoia with a side of fear.

It's also the mark of great direction on Lila Neugebauer's part, who has the actors play the moment-to-moment shifts in full, so that the exaggerated comedy never compromises the reality of the situation. At one point, Ruckus enters the kitchen and, catching the shy Marco finally responding to the commandingly flirtatious Emma's advances, calls him out for stealing a Sprite. Never mind that Ruckus's hands are covered in blood: what's important is how the world spins madly on, latching onto small things to keep its head straight. There's a certain sick truth to the prevalent commercialism: in the midst of all this chaos, orders continue to come through the loudspeaker, and even the potential bad guys, like Paul (Eric Gilde), hide their agendas with preppy cheer and service with a smile, no matter how much blood's on their hands.

It's a terrific production all around, for it is eerily prescient, strangely comic, and utterly believable. Clark's work calls to mind other exaggerative realists, like Sam Shepard, in that the character-driven scenes build up a world that is, at times, impossible to reject. Imagine a New Jersey that is nightmarish not on account of being New Jersey, but for the corpses casually punctuating the road, a world where mothers shower in their clothes so as to always be at the ready, and then imagine all the ways in which life forces itself to go on.

Ultimately, Edgewise chooses to be a coming-of-age story, but despite the fast-food setting or the single act, there's nothing rushed in the development, and Clark never misses an opportunity to normalize the atmosphere of war: When Ruckus mentions that Emma can write her college essay on it, she says, "Sure, I'll write my college essay about the time me and two stoners tied some guy to a chair in the back room of a fucking Dougal's while his leg bled out all over the floor. I'll write about that. Great. Thank you." To wit, Ruckus replies that she might want to change the location: a homeless shelter would play better to the admissions board. Scarily enough, isn't that what's really important?

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