Times Theater Writer

John Patrick Shanley is an American Gorky. The lower depths are his warm swimming pool. There is nothing he understands better than desperation, no one he writes better about than the beaten-down.

Denise Savage (Laurie O'Brien) is his "Savage in Limbo," the central figure in a frequently funny surrealist metaphor written by Shanley and directed by Roxanne Rogers at the Cast Theatre.

Denise is strung out at the end of a very thin rope--a steel cable shaped like a hangman's noose that won't snap and won't let her go. Her limbo is the snake pit of loneliness, a place bordering on hell indeed. The Bronx bar she has wandered into, obsessively looking for action, is a repository from tormented souls. That this dismal neighborhood dive is called Scales carries the symbolism a step further: Who's meting out justice in this balancing act of life?

Shanley aptly calls his "Savage in Limbo" a concert play. It is not meant to be naturalistic, but it trades on a deceptive air of semi-naturalism. The people in it look contemporary, but they are, in fact, in limbo: the quintessential Nowheresville. The Bottom of the Heap.

This bartender, Murk (get it?), dispenses drinks that materialize spontaneously--out of the air, from behind the bar. Not a bottle in sight. And everyone in this play is 32 years old--now and forever: Murk (Lee Wilkof); April White (Betsy Slade), the demented soul who wanted to become a nun in India but has become stuck in this place like a needle in an old Victrola; Linda Rotunda (Elizabeth Ruscio), the overripe Italian sexpot who gets pregnant all the time but can't think of what else to do ("You're sloppy and you're fertile," Denise offers from across the room, as much in consolation as explanation)--and Linda's boyfriend Tony (Sam McMurray), a mixed-up dude who wants to break up with Linda because he's suddenly into ugly women who are into Soviet Russia.

Pure surrealism--but talented surrealism, often sardonically funny, eventually very dark. Rogers has done a solid job of setting the mood and directing her actors, but her battle was really won when she cast O'Brien and Ruscio as the jousting Denise and Linda.

Each is distinct, each enormously powerful, so much so that the others fade by comparison. This is not their fault. They are more peripheral as written, though McMurray could be more macho as Tony, and Wilkof (a strong actor best remembered as the milquetoast in "Little Shop of Horrors") is even a bit miscast; Murk begs to be a commanding, lumbering hulk.

The eye of this hurricane is O'Brien's Denise--a deeply hungry, deeply crazy person, dying of loneliness and suffocated by her virginity--an oppressive condition she describes at length, as much to try to understand it as to try to break free. It soils and strangles her like some medieval instrument of torture. And there's no escape.

Denise is out of control, wild with demons that won't be assuaged. "What is my crime," she shouts near the end of the play, "that I got life ? . . . " It is the agonized extension of an earlier line spoken much more casually when she walked in the bar: "I don't feel like watching television once more for the rest of my life," she said, "with my mother who looks like a dead walrus." Her final helpless cry of "I AM ALONE" centers the play, giving meaning and substance to all that has gone before.

Yet for all its swagger, tough talk and vulgarity (of which there is plenty), "Savage in Limbo" is not a breakthrough piece. It is more traditional and romantic than it would like to believe it is, even sinking to cheap sentimentality with the music box that the enamored Murk gives April, tragic object of his misbegotten affections. Hardly original stuff.

The barroom play and the state of limbo seem to be rites of passage in every young playwright's life, from Sutton Vane to Saroyan. Shanley is young, and if this is his rite of passage play, it's a vigorous, frequently thrilling one.

It taps out its conventional message about being isolated in one's skin and alienated in society in a kind of low-life, poetic Morse code. This rises sufficiently above the triteness of the premise to present us with vibrantly comical characters in very real pain. In the end, we don't mind the deja vu. It's the quality of the approach that counts.

Performances at 804 N. El Centro Ave. run Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Through Aug. 12. Tickets: $15; (213) 462-0265.

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