“A play will not yield up its themes if you think you already know the answers.” That line from the director’s program notes for “Goose & Tomtom” is a clue to the West Coast premiere of this David Rabe play that opened Monday at the Stella Adler Theatre in Hollywood.
Director Charles Otte does well to try to define the undefinable. Unlike previous Rabe plays seen in Los Angeles--even including the 1988 “Hurlyburly” with Sean Penn and Danny Aiello that Rabe himself directed at the Westwood Playhouse--"Goose & Tomtom” performs on an enhanced surrealistic plane. It can be inscrutable. It can be off-putting. It is long and feels longer. It is almost always hilarious. Or unsettling. Or both.
So what’s it about? On the surface, about a pair of small-time crooks (“Crooks are the medium of exchange in the modern currency of urban folklore,” writes Otte) joshing and sparring a whole night away with schemes, girlfriends, obsessions, enemies and one extraterrestrial visitation.
Written before “Hurlyburly” and first staged by Rabe at Lincoln Center with Penn, Madonna and Harvey Keitel in 1986, “Goose & Tomtom” is a sort of “Alice in Wonderland Meets the Two Stooges in the Underworld.” Is it a night or an eternity that elapses? Are these girlfriends real--Lorraine, who sticks pins in their arms to check out their toughness, and Lulu, who is blindfolded, bound and gagged and kept in a closet? Was Goose once a frog as he seems to believe? Does Tomtom have bugs crawling up his nose? Are these two bozos stalked by ghosts?
Those are some of the questions posited and unanswered in 2 1/2 hours of low-life vernacular, slapstick, wrestling, playing with guns (and daggers and swords), plotting with colored pens, a song-and-dance routine and two chairs broken over the heads, first of Tomtom, then of Goose.
If this sounds wild, there’s more, such as Lorraine stealing Goose’s liver from his body (it hurts Goose whenever she squeezes it). But the details, however startling, aren’t what “Goose & Tomtom” is about. It’s the totality that leaves you dazed. Some might say dazzled. It’s about crossing a line, about intimations of mortality, feeling connected to a central universe. Or disconnected. It’s about irrationality and chaos and the randomness of order.
And it’s all done with mirrors--the mirrors in words, sub-text peppered with expletives and garnished with broken syntax. Rabe has said that “language is much more aggressive than merely reflecting or reporting or describing a reality already present.” In “Goose & Tomtom” (not unlike “Hurlyburly”) there are Vesuvian monologues, separated by reams of monosyllabic exchanges: “I’m nervous"--"I’m hungry. You hungry?"--"I’m nervous"--"I’m hungry"--"I’m nervous"--"You hungry?"--"I’m nervous. You’re hungry"--"Yeh"--"You’re hungry"--"I’m hungry. You’re nervous.” Repetition is reassurance, a form of self-validation. I talk therefore I am.
This inaugural Mojave Group production doesn’t adhere to each tittle and jot in the script, but is loyal to its grander purpose. Otte, apparently secure enough to play around with details, achieves a tough, discomfiting, oddly exalted staging with performers that make you sit up and take notice--none more so than Richard Schiff as the Barney Fife-ish Goose, and Will Kepper as the ambidextrous blow-hard Tomtom. Vladimir and Estragon. This may not be “Waiting for Godot,” but these guys are waiting for something . Maybe Bingo (Nick Vallelonga) or even The Man (Christopher Nixon).
“Goose & Tomtom” has the same metaphysical aspirations as “Godot,” coupled with the same sense of clownishness. That doesn’t necessarily make it easy to watch, because Rabe illustrates his points by depicting morally stunted men, whose aggravated misogyny is often misconstrued as coming from the twisted mind of the writer instead of the men he is writing about.
Robin Burrows’ Lorraine is clearly brighter than her male counterparts if not exactly a genius, though less can be said for the puppet-like Lulu, played like a broken toy by Christine Sang.
Vallelonga, in black suit and shirt, is every inch the small-time hood and Nixon’s delivery of a remarkable monologue on man’s unquenchable taste for blood and war is all the more staggering for being topical.
“Goose & Tomtom’s” checkered production history attests to the difficulty of staging Rabe’s plays well, let alone one as complex as this. In this regard, Otte and his cast need not apologize. But this is a comedy you must be prepared to endure as much as enjoy. It is not for all markets, which only confirms Rabe as a writer of profound originality loyal only to his instinct. If audiences follow, fine. But he’s not going a-courting.
“Goose & Tomtom,” Stella Adler Theatre, 6250 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays,8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Feb. 24. $15-$20; (213) 466-1767. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.
‘Goose & Tomtom’
Will Kepper: Tomtom
Richard Schiff: Goose
Robin Burrows: Lorraine
Christine Sang: Lulu
Nick Vallelonga: Bingo
A Mojave Group presentation. Producer Steven Ullman. Director Charles Otte. Playwright David Rabe. Set Angela Balogh Calin. Lights and sound Charles Otte. Original music Rolf Kent. Wardrobe/props Eleanor Grauner. Stage manager Steven Ullman. Assistant stage manager Ann Osmond.