To enjoy “Hell Meets Henry Halfway” is to accept the show as little more than a gleeful plunge into unremitting pessimism. Performed by the Pig Iron Theater Company last Thursday and Friday at the CFA Theater, its vision of human existence as a treadmill of boredom, disappointment, and suppressed fury is hardly a revelation, theatrically or philosophically speaking. However, the production’s striking visual composition and outstanding ensemble injects these shopworn insights with a vigor and sardonic wit that left the viewer emotionally stimulated, if not intellectually strained.
Human inertia and its crippling effects on the soul form the center of Adriano Shaplin’s script, whose placement of acid-tongued bourgeois malcontents in an anonymous existential echo chamber suggests Samuel Beckett by way of Neil LaBute.
We first see Henry (Dito Van Reigerberg) jumping rope in his office, an astute visual manifestation of his repetitious, dismal existence. His fiancée, Maya (Sarah Sanford), shoots withering insults at him every chance she gets, a practice Henry returns with dour enthusiasm. Offstage we hear the strangled demands of a senile old crank known only as the Prince (Mary McCool). Henry doubles as his secretary and caregiver; he performs both positions with barely concealed loathing. Into this unholy trinity comes both Marian (Gabriel Quinn Bauriedel) a washed-up failure of a tennis pro employed to coach an unwilling and combative Maya; and Petar Hincz (Michael Crane), a doctor, hired to tend to the Prince, whose own physical and mental states are quickly deteriorating. Standing somewhat outside of these miserable creatures is Jon the Ballboy (James Sugg), whose ebullient physicality and constant nattering ensure his isolation and, ultimately, his doom.
These characters don’t interact so much as growl and swipe at one another, hurling nihilistic observations and pitiless insults toward anyone within spitting distance. These make for some jaw-dropping (and jaw-droppingly funny) displays of verbal cruelty. This is particularly evident in the sadomasochistic affair that develops between Maya and Marian. Sanford, with his willowy frame slouched and bony features twisted into a look of carnal disgust, delivers her lines with machine-gun speed, and she’s matched beat-for-beat by Bauriedel. The two possess a fascinating and combative chemistry, two train wrecks taking delight in one another’s destruction.
The rest of the ensemble rises to similar heights, conveying varying degrees of wretchedness with comedic precision. Crane, in particular, has a woozy, off-kilter delivery that turns the most banal observations into tarnished pearls of crackpot wisdom. These performances particularly help elevate the play’s first act, which tends to sag under the well-observed but repetitious rhythms of Shaplin’s dialogue.
Admittedly, very little happens within “Hell Meets Henry Halfway.” And while the intent is to dramatize the “Endgame”-esque desolation of lost souls caught in their own webs of deception and lethargy, the resulting lack of plot movement results in some sluggish and exhausting passages.
Director Dan Rothenberg alleviates many of these issues with his clever staging. Using the metaphor of tennis, Rothenberg has the characters hurling slur after venomous slur at one another while keeping their movements tight and controlled. No amount of verbal volleying can help transcend the divides between them. It’s of note that the only quasi-healthy relationship in the play (between Petar and the Prince) develops almost complete ly without dialogue. All others remain trapped on their own sides of an unconquerable split.
Sound designer Bill Moriarty pushes this even further. From the first moments of the performance, a single ambiguous note is continuously struck in the background. In the play’s most heated moments, it serves as a subtle auditory reminder of the back-and-forth rhythms that imbue every interaction. In a rare moment of silence, its constancy recalls both the beating of a heart and the ticking of a clock. Even in repose, the characters find no solace.
Shaplin’s writing is often at its best when the characters are at their most isolated. Near the beginning, scenic designer Matt Saunders has an office closet transform into sleeping compartments on a train. Maya and Marian occupy the cubicles, each of them launching into deeply misanthropic diatribes while uncomfortably squirming about in the undersized space. This arrangement is echoed at the end of the first act, when Marian supplies a list of all the people life would be better without. Needless to say, it’s a lengthy inventory, and Shaplin’s descriptions are acute and unsparing.
These moments of finely-observed misery provide “Hell Meets Henry Halfway” with its most memorable moments, since the overall trajectory of the play becomes increasingly apparent during the second act. Given the bleak, static nature of the text, the bloody denouement provides little surprise or insight into these dismal individuals’ plights.
Still, if you’re going to wallow in the muck and mire of human existence, you might as well do it with Pig Iron’s panache. As the saying goes, hell is other people; and “Hell Meets Henry Halfway” allows us to keep company with some truly stimulating depressives.