Beware a Director’s notes assuring us that Reckless, Craig Lucas’ darkly comedic Christmas play penned in 1983, feels modern and relatable. Of course we notice the lack of cellphones and yes we giggle at the mention of Lotus computer operating systems, but that’s not the reason for the play’s staleness. Instead, Lucas’ tale of people behaving badly rubs our present senses the wrong way due to comedic set ups and situations that frankly just aren’t appropriately funny any longer.
And before anyone groans and calls out “down with political correctness”, I feel you. Can’t we just have some naughty fun in a Christmas show and not worry about what is “right” or “proper”. As someone who cringes at the sticky sweetness of most holiday shows, I’d be first in line for some good down in the dirt dark humor. Problem is, Reckless is neither all that funny nor all that cleverly dark. Instead it takes pot shots at the obvious targets, dilutes the dark to mere shadowy and expects laughs along the way.
Take the jumping off point of the show. Rachel (Kim Tobin-Lehl), a nonstop stream of consciousness gal with an utter lack of guile or irony, is having a “euphoria attack” on Christmas Eve. Interrupting her love of all things holiday is her husband Tom (Nick Farco) who guilt-riddenly admits that he’s hired a hit man to break into their home that night to kill her. In zany mayhem, he urges her out of the house and into the snowy night wearing nothing but her bathrobe and slippers.
So…….are we supposed to think it’s funny, this planned violence? This man’s attack on his wife because he’s too cowardly to tell her he’s unhappy? Are we supposed to forgive him because he helped her escape? Before we can process the misogynist overtones that allow Tom to get off scot-free while Rachel freezes her ass off wandering around outside in the cold, we’re walloped with another uncomfortable truth. Rachel has not only left Tom, but she’s left her two young boys in the home with her killer husband, and she doesn’t seem to give a damn, nor will she for the duration of the play.
Many have excused Rachel’s lack of thought for her children as the outgrowth of Lucas’ own childhood, one where he was found in the back seat of a car, abandoned by his mother when he was an infant. But if Reckless is Lucas’ attempt to explain or excuse his past, we’re not drinking the Kool-Aid. We have no idea why Tom wanted to kill Rachel and we have no idea why Rachel spares not one thought about her kids, other than briefly asking her best friend once during a phone call to check on them. Rather we are asked to go along for the ride and laugh at the silliness that unfolds as Rachel happily moves on.
Only it’s not silliness. At least not to our modern minds. In the two-hour duration of the play, Lucas manages to make fun of the deaf, depict the homeless as crazy or crazily bitter and reduce the psychiatric profession to a series of stereotypical ineffective tropes.
Yet there are some gem-like moments along the way. Rachel is taken in by physical therapist Lloyd (John Feltch) and his wife Pooty (Jennifer Dean), a deaf paraplegic. All seems saintly perfect between the couple until Pooty reveals her secret to Rachel in one of the play’s truly funny moments of shockingly bad behavior that hits the dark comedy sweet spot.
Too bad then that the moment is ruined when we find out what lurks behind Lloyd’s angelic exterior. Here Lucas ratchets up the dark to truly deplorable heights, imbuing a monstrous backstory for the character. The problem is that Lloyd’s horrific deeds feel completely out of step with the rest of the play’s lightly zany badness. Rachel, in her ever naïve cheeriness, may be able to rationalize and get past it, but we can’t. Lloyd’s transgressions sour any chance we have to laugh at him or his circumstances and unfortunately Lucas gives us no compelling or crafty reason to cheer this story on from there.
Not even when Rachel asks the play’s central philosophical question, wondering if we ever really know anyone completely. Of course the answer is no and Lucas tries to nudge at in his script, where no one is as they seem and everyone has flaws and dark secrets. It’s a good enough premise, but by the time Act 2 rolls around, it feels as if even Lucas himself doesn’t know his characters or what he’s trying to have them say to us.
The jumble of bizarre events and happenstance that populate the latter half of the play, pitting Rachel against her past and present over several Christmas Eve’s, ramps up to Hallmark proportions. Suddenly the play gets sentimental and even sweet, with a couple eye rolling coincidences thrown in for good measure. It’s as though Lucas has tired of the dark comedy game and instead makes a left turn into slushiness.
Even with the play’s thematic and structural issues, there’s no doubt that Tobin-Lehl as Rachel is the worthy of our attention in this show. If not for her blabber mouth, earnest, quirky and addictively humorous running commentary on all things, we surely would have nodded off long ago. Despite the script’s meandering and plodding, watching Tobin-Lehl shred the set with her nonstop ‘gosh wow’ dialogue is truly a treat.
The rest of the cast turns out fine performances as well despite Philip Lehl’s often sluggish direction and the mediocre and unnecessary use of video projection. Special mention goes to Zac Kelty as an unctuous game show host and Deborah Hope as a litany of bad psychiatrists. A scene depicting birth re-enactment therapy is without question the show’s best realized funny moment and Hope plays it beautifully.
Perhaps more head scratching than the script itself is Kevin Holden’s set design, utilizing attractive and festive hues of silver, blue and grey, but peppering the set wall with so many odd objects that we can’t make any sense of it. There’s quite a bit of silver tinsel –that fits. As do the blue stars. But why are candlesticks, pots, brooms, lamps, a mailbox, a cleaver and what I believe was a vuvuzela affixed to the set backdrop? A surrealist cabinet this ain’t and it felt haphazard at best.
And yet, despite all this, there is joyous news coming out of this production. Reckless was to be the final show by 4th Wall as a stand against the poor wages available to actors and tech staff in the city. A move that had audiences and critics alike despondent, but supportive of the company’s stance on fair wages.
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Thankfully it seems a Christmas miracle has been realized with a supremely generous donor stepping it to ensure that 4th Wall can program one more show this season and offer a full season after that. It’s a last minute breath of life that has everyone in the theatrical community heaving a sigh of relief.
With this in mind then, it’s not really about whether I or any other critic liked this production of Reckless. What really matters is that we can now celebrate the continuation of 4th Wall, a major indie player in the Houston theater scene, programming some of the most fresh, always gorgeously cast and unapologetically actor-driven shows in the city. Shows that we at the Houston Press have been delighted to award.
When it comes to this show, one minor lump of stocking coal is well worth it, knowing that the potential for stupendous theatrical presents are just around the corner.
Reckless runs through December 16 at Spring Street Studios, 1824 Spring. For tickets, call 832-786-1849 or visit 4thwalltheatreco.com. $32-$53. $17 Students, $26 Seniors. Pay what you can Monday December 11.