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STAGE REVIEW : ‘Noah Johnson’s’ Cynicism Alive With Comedy

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

Oh, what a lovely war.

From the moment Jeremiah Bentonville stares at a mound of on-stage corpses and enthuses, “It’s good to be alive,” we catch the drift of Jon Bastian’s new comedy, “Noah Johnson Had a Whore.” As the title suggests, the play that opened during the weekend on South Coast Repertory’s Second Stage in Costa Mesa is about camp followers. Of every kind.

The war is the Civil War. Jeremiah and his son and assistant, Noah Johnson, are undertakers for hire, chasing down casualties of the fray and boxing them for a price. They’re equal-opportunity scavengers who sell their services impartially to both sides.

Well, it’s a living. Did anyone mention profiteering? Purely a matter of semantics. If you cut out the competition, find ways to inflate the numbers and maximize profits, it’s called the American Way. All you have to watch out for is getting caught. That and camp followers of another sort who might have other agendas. Take Lydia Dollner, whose unexpected arrival in search of a compromising locket given to a Yankee soldier proves at the very least disruptive.

Noah would love to take her, and while the lad has an innocence that even the circumstances of his life can’t shake, he’s living proof that you can beat the spoilers at their own game and remain unsullied. Lydia’s a shrewd customer who knows how to spar with the worst and very nearly upsets the Bentonville hearse show. It’s a narrow contest of threats, counterthreats and flying body parts, but nothing, in the end, that a little legerdemain can’t fix.

For all of its blatant, exultant cynicism, Bastian’s comedy is remarkably good-natured and leaves us thrilled to see the bad guys win. The larger point is that evil is a matter of degrees. War, especially civil war, is the unspeakable offense. Three petty larcenists without moral pretensions bumming a ride on its coattails are forgivable parasites.

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Not that all is perfect with this play. A lot is made of the stench of decaying bodies when a Yankee officer stops by to strike a deal. But no one else seems to mind. One might expect Noah and Jeremiah to have developed an immunity, but what about the Southern major who drops in? And, more to the point, what about Lydia? She not only ignores the odor, but shows not the slightest discomfort sifting through rotting flesh.

Martin Benson, who has made a fine satirical stew, is too sharp a director to let such implausibility sail by without a rationale, but if it’s there it can’t be found. It’s a peculiar oversight amid the ruthlessness and realism of a piece that doesn’t shy away from other graphic detail. True, the corpses on Cliff Faulkner’s pre-Victorian set (complete with candlestick footlights, a nice touch), do look like a heap of traumatized mannequins. But, given the theater’s small size, any greater verisimilitude might be too much to bear.

Production values are otherwise impeccable, from Shigeru Yaji’s ironic funeral black for the undertakers to Paulie Jenkins careful lighting transitions and, above all, Michael Roth’s subliminal music score--sporadic but chilling, the singular expression of horror at the goings-on.

Jonathan McMurtry’s Jeremiah is an archetypal predator--slow, rapacious, stoop-shouldered and uncompromising in his devotion to business. He has allegiance only to Noah, his son by a black mistress whom he sincerely loved. And Dominic Hoffman’s Noah makes it easy to see why. He is boyish and tall and brimming with appetites--a wide-eyed youth eager to embrace his sexuality along with life’s other surprises.

One of these, of course, is the duplicitous Lydia, entirely too hard-nosed as played by Melissa Weil, who gives us a portrait of unvarnished chicanery from the start. Not for a moment do we believe her to be the bereft widow she pretends to be, though a little fooling of the audience at that early point, no matter how fleeting, would spice up the proceedings. Weil is good at effrontery but lacks the practiced charm a woman successful in her line of work would have to possess.

Ron Boussom brings his considerable gifts to a pair of Civil War officers, one Confederate and one Yankee. These are essentially cameos, done to a turn, that complete the festering picture. But the real discovery here is Bastian. He’s not afraid to run with the material and push it to the brink of grotesquerie. The result is a rousing, rambunctious and refreshing play.

‘Noah Johnson Had a Whore’

Jonathan McMurtry: Jeremiah Bentonville

Dominic Hoffman: Noah Johnson

Melissa Weil: Lydia Dollner

Ron Boussom: Major Frost/Colonel Grass

A South Coast Repertory presentation of a new play by Jon Bastian. Director Martin Benson. Sets Cliff Faulkner. Lights Paulie Jenkins. Costumes Shigeru Yaji. Music/sound Michael Roth. Dramaturg Jerry Patch. Production manager Edward Lapine. Stage manager Andy Tighe. Assistant stage manager Randall K. Lum.


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