The bed that dominates the set for Sheila Callaghan's new play, "Bed," is raised on a jerry-built platform and surrounded by a sea of junk — bags of cheap candy, cigarette butts, junk-food wrappers and other vestiges of late-night wildness from weeks (maybe months) gone by.
Holly (a fiery Kate Morgan Chadwick) is clearly not a poster child for healthy living. A musician with a voracious sexual appetite, a case of self-diagnosed "chronic loneliness" and a self-destructive streak a mile wide, she is described as a "tiny, feral post-punk prodigy," and it would be hard to improve on this characterization.
When we first encounter Holly in this characteristically well-acted Echo Theater Company production, she's crawling on the floor in the writhing manner of our earliest amphibious ancestors making their first foray onto the land from the sea.
Her destination is the bed, which is both her sanctuary and her prison. Waiting in the bed, which has properties of an adults-only version of the wardrobe in the C.S. Lewis children's classic "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," is a guy she just picked up to help her make it through the night.
Cliff (a captivatingly sincere TW Leshner) wouldn't seem to be her type. A scruffily manicured, Ivy League-educated guy who speaks German and French, he's determined to realize his dream of becoming a writer and is as disciplined and reasonable as Holly is chaotic and irrational.
The sex, however, hooks him. Holly isn't simply unbridled — she wants to extinguish herself in a blaze of orgasmic glory.
A throwaway remark about sexual abuse inflicted on her by her father when she was a teen is our clue to the origins of her instability, but Holly isn't looking to be saved or pitied or, God knows, psychoanalyzed. She wants to act out her trauma with a man who is too sensitive for the role of punitive father she has cast him in.
Callaghan, a playwright and TV writer (Showtime's "Shameless") whose play "Women Laughing Alone With Salad" opens at the Kirk Douglas Theatre next month, is more adept at capturing moments in the relationship tangle than in developing a larger dramatic framework for her characters.
JC, Cliff's narcissistic, Paris-based brother (brought raffishly to life by Johnathan McClain), is introduced relatively late into the plot to inject some forward-motion turmoil. But Holly's psychological journey gets drowned in a lot of noise — some of it from the guitar she plays at deafening volume as her career takes off and Cliff's fizzles. (The songs, loud and laceratingly lyrical, are by Sophocles Papavasilopoulos & Maxwell Gualtieri.)
Director Jennifer Chambers handles the jumps in time and place with imaginative fluidity. Whatever the locale (Brooklyn, Berlin, Los Angeles or elsewhere) in the play's 10-year span, the bed of Se Oh's set remains a constant — a private zone in which Holly and Cliff cultivate their own alternative reality.
At times, the play and the production strain for theatrical effects that undermine plausibility. The extremity of Holly's behavior in her first encounter with Cliff makes it hard to believe that he would stick around like a naive puppy after their lovemaking is done. Their meet-cute is meant to be meet-raunchy but comes off as meet-crazy.
Happily, the actors are otherwise so convincing that they help us get past this hurdle. Even when the writing loses its way, the truth of the performances lures us on.
"Bed" is an intimate play that sleepwalks in its final stages, but the dreamlike quality of two artists in the throes of a wounded and wounding love maintains a quirky fascination.