Things happen for a reason,” repeats the ever-cheerful Rachel Fitzsimmons in Craig Lucas’ 1983 dark comedy Reckless, the Boot and Buskin Theater Group student production at Le Moyne College’s Coyne Center for the Performing Arts. Until she asks of herself, “Or do they?”
Lucas, better-known for Prelude to a Kiss, is part of a generation of playwrights, like Christopher Durang and John Guare, who grew up loving French theater of the absurd, with dark masters like Eugene Ionesco. As an American, though, he also knows Frank Capra movies, like It’s A Wonderful Life, whose milieu appears to be borrowed for the first few scenes. And despite dealing with such themes as madness, abandonment, deception, embezzlement and attempted murder, Reckless is a gentle comedy. Lucas wants you to think about some heavyweight questions, but first he wants you to laugh.
Running only about two hours with intermission, Reckless brings such a twisting—make that anfractuous—story line that he may have wanted it to be a booby trap for any reviewer foolish enough to attempt to recount very much of it. Looking out the window of her home in some snow-covered northeastern state, Rachel (Jessie Gherardi) swoons that she’s about to suffer a euphoria attack because it’s Christmas Eve and Bing Crosby is crooning in the background and everything looks perfect. She crawls into bed with her taciturn husband, Tom (Michael Chiappone), who has something important to say, and he’s reluctant to get it out.
“I’ve taken out a contract on you,” he finally allows, which Rachel assumes means an insurance policy. No, it’s a hired killer, he explains, telling her further that she should leave the house as soon as possible. This she does, with bathrobe and slippers into the snow.
On reaching the highway, Rachel takes a ride with a reticent man named Lloyd (Patrick Harris), who takes her home with him across the state line to Springfield, where he lives with a wheelchair-bound deaf-mute named Pooty (Rachel Momot). They ask her to move in with them. Well, why not? Besides, Pooty will give Rachel a pair of shoes.
Without any preparation, Rachel has left behind her two sons, her friends and her home. “I’ve always wanted to do something reckless, you know?” Something that would scandalize your parents and disappoint your friends but would make you happy. “I think we get these ideas from rock ’n’ roll songs.” And she throws her wedding ring out the window.
Much comment is made on the oddness of the name “Pooty,” which is never explained in the play. It’s very likely an archaic dialect word meaning “pretty,” and very unlikely to be the urban street slang obscenity. Lloyd and Pooty are not what they have presented themselves (no spoilers allowed), and Lloyd is troubled by a long-ago unpaid debt. The only way they can think of to get money for the payoff is to appear on a tacky, guest-humiliating quiz show called Your Wife or Your Mother, hosted by an unctuous announcer (Travis Milliman). Donning makeshift clown costumes, evocative of Let’s Make a Deal, Rachel passes herself off as Lloyd’s wife, and Pooty, with white wig, as his mother.
Director Leslie Noble, long associated with the Le Moyne program but now with the Syracuse University Drama Department, speaks of her evolving understanding of Reckless over the decades. She once thought it was a satire on Christmas but now Noble sees it as a heroic journey. Well, if not heroic, maybe picaresque, like Voltaire’s Candide or Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.
With a jack-in-the-box at every plot turn, Reckless thrives on the spontaneity of live performance. Not surprisingly, it failed as a movie (1995), with the perfectly cast Mia Farrow, America’s oldest flower child, and directed by Norman Rene, playwright Lucas’ longtime companion.
What keeps the show’s deadpan looney toons rolling so swiftly is Noble’s control of tone and timing. The action occasionally veers into farce, as with the Your Wife or Your Mother game show, or the sequence of different but clueless psychiatrists (all played by Ryan Bannen), where the timing is absolutely frantic. And we can applaud those. But in between Rachel runs into a sour, superior co-worker Trish (Jade Taggart), who hogs the state-of-the-art 1980s model computer and leaves Rachel to do only scutwork. Rachel attempts self-help by upgrading her skills and moves on to Trish’s turf. Then a news report on a television monitor blows the lid off on both Trish and her obsessive work.
That frantic pace begins to flag in the last half-hour when playwright Lucas wants us to pay up on Rachel’s promise that things happen for a reason—or do they? Psychiatrists and patients change roles, and we begin to ask if all these disconnections could have happened, not just what reason might explain them.
Le Moyne junior theater major Jessie Gherardi takes on much of the heavy lifting in Reckless with perhaps 55 percent of the lines in the whole, appearing in nearly every scene. Early on she captures Rachel’s nave and forgiving voice, a buoyant personality who is never taken aback by the damndest turn of events. Along with her reliable comic timing, Gherardi navigates studied missteps and hesitations written into the script. Rachel’s good-heartedness, however, is not a cover for blockheaded stupidity, no matter how often her hopes for rationality are thwarted.
Shirley Blakeley’s many costumes allow players to zoom through rapid successions of characters. And Gloria Sprague’s set design and lighting reconfigure the tight space in the Marren Studio, the upstairs black box venue at the Coyne Center. Panels tied to track wires but rolling on casters define small bedrooms, doctor’s offices and television studies. Sometimes those panels deliberately block the sight lines when we’re not supposed to see.
This production runs through Saturday, Feb. 23. See Times Table for information.