A new play by
Tony nominee John Cariani
(author of Off-Broadway’s Almost, Maine)
Directed by Jack Cummings III
A new play by Tony nominee John Cariani (author of Off-Broadway’s Almost, Maine)
Transport Group presented the world premiere of Tony Award nominee John Cariani’s play cul-de-sac. Cariani’s dark comedy explores the bizarre secrets of three houses in one cul-de-sac on an ordinary spring evening. Each couple on this dead end street goes to extreme measures to force their dreams, revealing long-suppressed agendas that threaten their survival.
Roger and Jill Johnson come home from work and realize they have forgotten to have the baby. Christy and James Smith struggle to come to terms with the fact that Christy literally lost her baby at The Super Center (Cariani’s take on the explosion of large stores such as Walmart and Target), and Joe and Irene Jones fight over how to proceed with their lives now that they have killed their toddler twins, Harriet and Homer because they want to get back to the way it was before they had children—to get back to the “good and true.”
The cast included Transport company members: Robyn Hussa, John Wellmann, Monica Russell, James Weber, Nicole Alifante and the author himself, John Cariani.
Composer Tom Kochan wrote an original score for solo piano, played live during the run by John DiPinto.
The New York Times:
John Cariani’s cul-de-sac is charming, witty and macabre. It also sometimes succeeds too well at evoking the repetitive pointlessness of its suburban characters’ lives.
The story unfolds over the course of a single spring day in the homes of three neighboring couples, all confronting the dead end of their dreams. That we are in the land of American mythology is signaled in their names: the Smiths (Monica Russell and James Weber), the Johnsons (Robyn Hussa and John Wellmann) and the handsome couple they all want to keep up with, the Joneses (Nicole Alifante and Mr. Cariani himself). “They’re very happy,” says Jill Johnson. “The whole neighborhood knows.”
Mr. Cariani’s writing leans heavily on the staccato, Ping-Pong rhythms that seem to be the current hip standard for Off Broadway (as if every role were written for William H. Macy at his most anxious and self-absorbed). The effect is emotionally distancing. But with his gift for the banality and comedy of despair, Mr. Cariani pulls it off better than most.
The performances are also entertaining enough to tide one through the doldrums. Mr. Cariani is wonderfully mercurial as Joe Jones, veering from dopey bliss to comic skittishness to dark paranoia. The object of his neighbors’ fantasies, with his twin babies and new cars and enviably green lawn, Joe at home is tightly wound, obsessively consulting records to be sure he and his wife “do what people usually do.”
As Roger Johnson, Mr. Wellmann deploys his basset-hound forehead to convey both the defeat of the perennial middle manager and a poignant, unexpected ember of tenderness and imagination. Confronting his wife’s question “What have we been so busy doing that we forgot to have the baby?”
Ms. Russell is adorable as Christy Smith, with her flat Midwestern vowels and dishevelment: one moment breathlessly eager to please, the next scuttling sideways to evade the desires of her big galoot husband and chirping about her “SuperCenter salmon filets, 24-count” as a steadying mantra.
The director, Jack Cummings III, manages to herd these eccentricities into a coherent whole. He is helped by R. Lee Kennedy’s lighting: like the psyches on view, it lurches from the dappled gold of romantic fantasy to the stark, alarmed white of intensive care. he winds himself through contortions meant to suggest profound contemplation but more like the agonies of a large, awkward bird.
Expect challenging original work from Transport Group and you won’t be disappointed. And that’s the way it goes with cul-de-sac, a new play by actor-playwright John Cariani (Almost, Maine) that is technically impressive to watch but uncomfortable to sit through. By imposing an expressionist design on ordinary events and heightening the language of everyday discourse, scribe strips away all subterfuge from the lives of three suburban couples living “on a nice little cul-de-sac in a nice town, in a nice state, in a nice country.”
The stark production design lets us know we’re in spooky territory here. A Wisteria Lane with no play dates. The giant halogen street lamp that looms over Sandra Goldmark’s stripped-down set is cruelly illuminating, a conspirator in the lighting design by R. Lee Kennedy that keeps a chokehold focus on the hapless characters caught in its grip. A bed, a couch, and a table with chairs serve their purposes -- but don’t go looking for a refrigerator with cute magnets in this gloomy world.
In a more conventional work, the married couples who are unmasked in the play’s three tightly blocked scenes might seem familiar.
Jill (Robyn Hussa) and Roger Johnson (John Wellmann) are the smart, successful professional couple who seem to have it all. But in the process of climbing the corporate ladder they forgot to acquire a child, and now that Roger has been passed over for a promotion, their lives are looking a bit bleak. Not at all as warm and loving as that of the Joneses’.
James (James Weber) and Christy Smith (Monica Russell) are the nice, inoffensive couple next door, trying bravely to carry on as usual after a sad loss. But compared with that perfect couple the Joneses, their lives seem empty. “We’re slipping,” James says. “We just don’t have what we used to have, and we aren’t what we used to be.”
As for those paragons, the Joneses, well, we know them, too. But they, too, have a secret life that they keep hidden from the neighbors.
Well aware of the perfection of their lives, the Joneses work desperately at the rituals and routines that make them perfect -- and it’s driving them nuts. Even a little thing like ordering their usual pizza makes them frantic with anxiety and indecision. Something “good and true” has gone out of their marriage, and they are just going through the motions on automatic pilot.
“They say you get close again to what’s good and true when you get close to dying,” says Irene, in a performance from Nicole Alifante that brings real anguish to the character’s desperation. “So let’s die!”
Somebody in this crowd, if not all of them, is sure to have a meltdown. But while Cariani (who plays Joe Jones) does a solid job of exposing the hollow centers of these marriages, the inevitable meltdowns are too schematic.
Jack Cummings III makes no concessions and takes no prisoners in directing his flawless cast of Transport Group regulars in the play’s heightened language and mannered behavioral style. The verbal acrobatics, in particular, spring directly from the characters’ subconscious thoughts and play as a sustained existential scream of pain.
The abstract style does a remarkable job of exposing the inner lives of characters who make a point of living their perfect lives entirely on the surface.
Domestic unrest is alive and well in cul-de-sac, John Cariani’s new black comedy about the malaise of yuppie suburbanites. Tempered by a comforting surface of absurdism, Cariani gives his play an undercurrent of melancholy. Even though there’s a lot of humor here, cul-de-sac is a cautionary tale about the dangers of taking what we have for granted. For all of the characters, the grass is always greener on the other side of their white picket fences.
Taking place on a “nice summer evening” now, cul-de-sac examines three separate households. Joe and Irene Jones are the golden couple of the neighborhood: they have two beautiful kids, two fancy new cars (which the Jones’ bought “to help us feel like we used to feel. Like dreamers. Like we could go anywhere and do anything.”), and, most importantly, they are still in love. The neighbors watch through their windows with envy as Joe and Irene dance happily in their living room every Friday night, like clockwork.
On one side of the Joneses live Jill and Roger Johnson. He has just been skipped over for a big promotion at work, and needs some sympathy. But Jill is too distracted to be much help. She’s worried that they’re not keeping up with their neighbors, covetous of their possessions, their lifestyle, and their happiness. “We don’t have the right to be happy. We have the right to pursue happy,” Jill says ruefully, as if such a thing were already out of reach for her. “We only get to chase it.” Usually accepting of the status quo, Jill is not content to do so today. She wants to talk about why it takes a little more than ordering pizza to make her happy, and why she and Roger keep putting off having that baby they claim to want.
On the other side of the Joneses live James and Christy Smith. She has been bedridden and housebound by depression for the past year, but has made a special effort to get up and shop for dinner today (which she hasn’t done in some time). When James gets home before she can start cooking, he pleads with her to always have dinner ready for him because “that’s the least you can do: I go out there and get us the stuff and the things we need to survive and you can stay inside as long as you need to, but only if you start takin’ the steps you need to take to help us get back to being what we used to be.” This leads to an in-depth discussion about the root of Christy’s depression, the dearth of sex in their marriage since its onset, and their own childlessness.
Then there’s Joe and Irene. A peek inside their home reveals more than a few cracks in their perfect façade. They keep a detailed log of their weekly routines, and fear any deviation from the norm. When in doubt, they consult the logbook and do whatever’s written. What gives? To say more would give away one of cul-de-sac’s many surprises. Suffice it to say that Joe and Irene’s reasons for sticking to the usual are far more sinister and unsettling than their neighbors could ever imagine.
Cariani’s writing here is excellent. His use of overlapping dialogue gives the play a hint of madcap screwball comedy—a good touch considering the deep veins of sadness he taps within the characters. Steeping the humor in modern, everyday neuroses helps make his points. Early in the play, Jill points out to Roger a discovery she made in her day planner. Her schedule on this day is packed: doctor’s office, hair salon, shopping center. Then…
JILL: Mmhmm And…what’s it say right there?
ROGER: Have the baby. (Beat.) Have the baby?
JILL: Yeah. I didn’t do that today. Did all that other stuff. But not that. Today was our target date.
ROGER: Our what?
JILL: Target date. For having the baby. We picked it a few years ago—when the Joneses had the twins, actually. Remember?
ROGER: Yeah, but I don’t remember picking an actual day…
JILL: Well, I do. We said that we should have a baby, that a few years from now would be a good time to have a baby. And a few years from now is here.
Later, in the second scene with Christy and James, food becomes a euphemism for sex as they argue about what to eat for dinner (she offers to make salmon; he wants to order pizza). This scene is a particularly striking, as Cariani uses their repetition of the phrase “I’m starving” to raise the stakes, and has enough finesse to make his point without hammering the audience over the head with it.
However, for every clear-eyed profundity he offers, Cariani serves up an equal amount of laughs. In the third scene, ordering a pizza (which figures prominently in cul-de-sac, representing the easy, convenient rut everyone’s life has fallen into) turns into a comic battle of wills as the Joneses fight over which way they do it most often. Do they order from Sal or Whitey? Tomato slices or pepperoni? Their reliance on the logbook is both hilarious and scary.
Director Jack Cummings III has a perfect understanding of cul-de-sac, and stages it beautifully. His and set designer Sandra Goldmark’s thematic conception of the play uses an actual cul-de-sac as the playing area. Each couple is limited to their section of the stage, so, in a way, they’re all trapped. The rest of the stage, thanks to both Goldmark and lighting designer R. Lee Kennedy, is green—indicative of both the Jones’ perfect front lawn, and the envy with which the neighbors view them. As with Cariani’s writing, Cummings’s direction is clear as a bell, but not so obvious that the audience feels like they’re being assaulted by symbolism. Kathryn Rohe’s costumes are right on the money, as well. And Tom Kochan’s original score (played live on the piano by John DiPinto) is a nice touch.
cul-de-sac’s cast gives a collective tour-de-force performance. As Jill and Roger, Robyn Hussa and John Wellman communicate the necessary pathos through the audience’s laughter. Monica Russell and James Weber, both of whom are heartbreaking in their respective desperation, follow them superbly as Christy and James. Closing out the evening with a chilling blast of denial are Cariani and Nicole Alifante, both marvelously frenetic as Joe and Irene. cul-de-sac’s blend of comedy and drama presents many challenges, all of which these actors navigate with the greatest of ease.
cul-de-sac examines the dark side of that idyllic tree-lined street that looks so good from the outside. Inside are unfulfilled dreams and aspirations: lost, neglected, forgotten, and ignored. Cariani gives us a potent wake-up call here. Think twice next time you’re about to order that pizza.