Belly up to the bar, boys. Order a beer, then prepare to chuck down a few shots of good old-fashioned in-your-face adrenaline. The peripatetic OnSite Theatre Company, which exists for the fun of staging plays where the action is happening, has set up shop at Cusumano's, a venerable dive in Maplewood. The dark, musty ambiance adds a sense of booze-stained nuance to Savage in Limbo, an early exercise in angst from prolific playwright John Patrick Shanley.
On a quiet night, three 32-year-old women converge upon the same rundown neighborhood bar in the Bronx, a joint so seedy that the plants died long ago. After the women realize that they all attended the same Catholic high school, they begin to pour out their frustrations and yearnings. Denise Savage (Jenn Bock) has reached the age where still being a virgin is a decided liability; she's looking for "action." Linda Rotunda (Julie Venegoni) lost her virginity half a lifetime ago. Everybody's had Linda. Through her tears, we learn that she has been jilted by her dumb stud of a boyfriend, Tony, who has developed a sudden craving for ugly women. You can use lots of colorful adjectives to describe Linda, but ugly she ain't. April (Colleen Backer) is a hopeless drunk whose dream of becoming a nun is long gone, even if her childish belief in Santa Claus remains pristine.
The girls' night out receives an unexpected jolt when the volatile Tony (Eric White) joins the mix. Denise begins to hope that maybe she's the kind of dog Tony has set his scent on. This four-ring circus is presided over by the bartender (Jared Sanz-Agero), a bruiser snob who's very choosy about whose melodramas can be chronicled on his turf.
Savage in Limbo at times has the feel of a playwriting exercise. Its subtitle, A Concert Play, betokens a rush of words. When Denise declares, "I'll talk till my mouth gets tired," she's not indulging in hyperbole. Although much of this prose is colorful and rhythmic, it lacks the fine-tuned economy and sharpness that Shanley would later display in his Tony- and Pulitzer-winning Doubt (whose Bronx locale is only a few blocks from this tavern). The evening feels more like a series of entertaining set pieces than a character-driven story. (Surely through the years, these monologues have provided material for countless auditions.) Although this one-act play only lasts 75 minutes, it's nevertheless a lot longer than it needs to be.
In such a verbose situation, the very premise of the OnSite experience is put to the test. When a viewer is this close to the actors, it's as if you're observing them under a microscope. The admirable concentration of these five performers never wavers. On the other hand, when actors acknowledge the presence of the audience in situations that might better be played intimately, then the conceit of environmental theater calls attention to itself. For some viewers, the novelty of sitting on a barstool might end long before the play does. (We can be thankful OnSite didn't choose The Iceman Cometh.)
Although the entire cast evokes an impressive energy, the sensitive touch of director Annamaria Pileggi is most sensitively displayed through the poignant performances of Venegoni and Backer. Ironically, five years ago this week the pair personified civility and gentility as Cecily and Gwendolen in Act Inc.'s staging of The Importance of Being Earnest. Now Venegoni is unflinching in a blistering portrayal of a shattered woman who has lost confidence in the only asset she has — her sexuality — and Backer has reached deep into her darkest recesses to etch a character quite unlike anyone she's created heretofore. Another director and actress might have settled for presenting April as the play's comic relief. But here, every time Backer opens her mouth, we peer into pathos. She is simply heartbreaking.