The Dark Comedy Rome Dives Into Suicide and Sex, Mutilation and Death

The setup: John Harvey is resident playwright for Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company, and has now written Rome his tenth play for them, a world premiere. It takes place in one continuous scene, in the drawing room to a mansion, as three men and three women discuss death and mutilation, suicide and sex, engage in flirtations, and plot seduction and midnight rape. It is, nonetheless, in many ways a dark comedy. It is great fun, but also deadly serious fun.

The execution: A large part of the entertainment is figuring out what exactly is going on, a bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle with some serious pieces missing. A published listing for the show mentions that the poet John Keats is dying in the next room, which would make the time 1820, and the setting London, though the program provides none of this information. Keats, ill from consumption, did go on to Rome, where he died.

We first meet the duo Charles (Bobby Haworth) and Fanny (Patricia Duran), about 30, give or take, and attractive. Charles is probably Charles Armitage Brown, a friend of Keats, and Fanny probably Keats' inamorata and fiancee Fanny Brawne. The couple George and Georgina are also about 30, and very attractive, and it's safe to assume that these are Keats's brother George and his wife Georgina, who bore these names. I suggest you not worry about who the characters are, as there is stronger meat ahead.

The ensuing conversations center on body parts, suicide, murder, and then body parts again, so it is less of a surprise later when a figure is seen crossing the lawn waving a human leg in the air. The graphic discussions are done with such intensity, even relish, that we realize this is a continuing debate, and that it is aesthetic and artistic, as well as macabre.

We meet another duo, Thomas (John Harvey) and Lauren (Amy Warren); Thomas is older and portly, and Lauren is attractive but not in the fitness-trainer mode of Fanny and Georgina. Thomas complains repeatedly about the absence of any wine, as he chats up Lauren, renewing an apparently ancient acquaintance. Another man enters, Joseph, with a clipboard, and summons George and Georgina offstage, perhaps to visit their dying relative, but the air is so super-charged with sexuality that it leads to other speculations.

George and Georgina return with Joseph, who now remains with the group, and George asks Charles about the best way (fasten your seat belts here) to seduce a child. Charles obliges with an anecdote about his own successful experience, ending up with some graphic and explicit body language. Are they pedophiles, or as artists are they discussing how to imagine such an event? There is less ambiguity about the fact that Fanny's father was a frequent visitor to her youthful bed, and that the mother knew but pretended not to, as related by Georgina.

The tone remains drawing-room, and the poise and savoir-faire suggest an upper-class milieu, peopled with spoiled and self-indulgent aristocrats, fixated upon sex, an Anglo-American version of Liaisons Dangereuses. Joseph is more middle-class, an employee, less protected, as we find out in the gripping finale as a military-uniformed female captain (Courtney Lomelo) enters with two soldiers (Darnea Olson and Lee Barker), guns at the ready.

What does it mean? It at least means that playwright Harvey has written a highly original and intriguing play, in some sense staging a brutal graphic novel. Harvey is speaking to our subconscious rather than to our rational, linear minds, and has succeeded admirably in this, treating the heated, racy drawing-room conversations as what Sigmund Freud would term our "id", and the intrusive and brutal military as the censoring "superego."

The aristocrats survive, and the drones do not, perhaps a comment on an evolving American culture. There are echoes of John Paul Sartre's "No Exit", and of Henry Miller's novel "Tropic of Cancer". These resonances add color and texture to the mystery. We are most involved when we are compelled to work to figure out something, and playwright Harvey is onto this, and uses it brilliantly.

The artistic director of Mildred's Umbrella, Jennifer Decker, directed this work with style and dispatch, with a cast to be lauded. Decker has achieved ensemble acting and an authentic conversational rhythm, and staged moments of great drama, as well as moments of ironic, slashing wit -- and I use that term advisedly.

Lomelo as the Captain is an amazing figure, dominating the drawing-room and showing a remarkable range. She stuns with her poise, and with a highly articulate recitation of the licentious abuses and self-centered sadism of the Roman emperor Tiberius at Capri. Seldom has a late-entering, minor character been so vivid and exciting.

Actor Jon Harvey is compelling in a complex role as Thomas, and brings precise diction and professional voice projection to the party. Warren as Lauren is good, with interesting body language. Reeder as Joseph is meant to be background, subservient, though he does attempt to shut up Thomas's rant about the absent wine, and his brief pantomime in a climactic scene is excellent. The minor roles of the uniformed soldiers are executed well.

The four principals -- Haworth and Duran as Charles and Fanny, and Bradford and Stryk as George and Georgina -- deliver fascinating, sharply-etched portraits of deeply flawed individuals with over-reaching needs. All these actors are powerful and effective -- Duran provides less range than the others, perhaps appropriate for a victim of early rape. There is more, much more -- George recounts an aborted suicide attempt, and a daughter, Ann, is in the hospital. There was talk early on of journeying to Rome, hence the title, and the Captain urges them to do so, having whetted their appetites with her vivid descriptions of the pedophilia of Tiberius - increased decadence may lie ahead.

The set is graced with an impressive chessboard, and the necessarily limited furniture is tasteful and appropriate, and works wonderfully for variety in movements. There is rain, a lot of it, seen through a large window, and the window also serves to show ominous projected images. The play takes 90 minutes - all of them engrossing - and is done with no intermission. You may be scratching your head as you exit the theater (I was), but you will know that you have seen a work of the purest imagination, and that John Harvey has pulled back the curtain to reveal a take on mankind that is disturbing, and, sad to say, perhaps in some ways true. The verdict: Brutal events are discussed with sophistication, quarrels ensue, and mysteries deepen in a brilliant, wonderfully-acted new play that hurtles us into a world we seldom contemplate, providing riveting entertainment and an intellectual treat. Adults only, but don't miss it.

Rome continues through March 22, from Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company, at Studio 101, 1824 Spring St. For information or ticketing, call 832-463-0499 or contact www.mildredsumbrella.com.

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