Groping their way toward higher ground without a moral compass, the working-class barflies in John Patrick Shanley’s edgy comedy “Savage in Limbo” earn respect and sympathy despite their lack of sophistication or intellectual prowess.
Perhaps even because of it. After all, the narrow confines of their Bronx neighborhood haven’t exactly prepared Denise Savage and her former schoolmates for the inevitable mid-30s recognition that transitory gratification isn’t much of a blueprint for a satisfying life.
Their frustrations, fears and marvelous comic bravado come endearingly to life at the Zephyr Theatre. Peter Allas’ staging focuses on--and receives--pinpoint authenticity from a well-cast ensemble. They gripe, hurl insults and abruptly unveil poignant vulnerabilities with impeccable accents and the signature volatility of dyed-in-the-wool New Yorkers.
As Denise, Riell Hunter makes her street-wise banter transparent enough to reveal that Savage’s limbo is as much self-imposed as circumstantial. “I’m scared of everything so I don’t do nothing,” she confesses as she contemplates her too-carefully preserved virginity at the age of 32.
From her barroom perch on this low-key Monday evening, however, Denise resolves to shake off her paralysis--first by moving out of her parents’ home to share an apartment with her pal, gaudy, slatternly Linda Rotunda (Elizabeth Dennehy), and later by coming on to Linda’s wayward boyfriend, Tony (Nick Koktakis).
Despite Hunter’s admirable precision, her performance strives a little too hard for continuity--part of the fun is these characters’ ability to surprise us. Dennehy has a better handle on this. Cluelessly obedient to her own impulses (she’s already foisted three babies off on relatives), her Linda ricochets from spiteful cat-fighter to groveling supplicant to lusty seductress and makes the cycle a convincing journey of self-discovery. Denise’s recognition of her own unsocial animal vitality comes in an ending that feels rushed, but still proves moving.
Though he could look a little grubbier, Koktakis’ Tony is amusingly buffeted by the ever-shifting demands of these forceful women until he convincingly asserts his own limits. Joe Basile and Lisa Malkiewicz bring delicate humor and pathos to their supporting roles of a tough bartender and the addled alcoholic he’s soft on.
Robert Zimmerman’s overly bright lighting warrants some rethinking. While the intent is to contrast two softly lit introspective monologues, there are other ways to heighten reality shifts without making a dive look like a Denny’s.
* “Savage in Limbo,” Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. Thursdays, Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 5 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 5 p.m. Ends Aug . 13. $15. (213) 660-TKTS. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.