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Arts and Entertainment

"The Jacksonian" Offers Terrific Performances But an Uneven Play

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Ed Harris and Amy Madigan in "The Jacksonian." Photo - Michael Lamont
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As a critic, the reviews I enjoy writing the most are ones where the situation is clear cut—the play is great or the play is terrible. Either way, the review is doing a service. It's the mixed reviews that are the most frustrating to write, and probably the most frustrating to receive. And yet this is where the real work of criticism comes in, the reckoning between expectation and realization, the explanation why a piece of art does or does not work for you personally. Along those lines, Beth Henley's play The Jacksonian, a world premiere at the Geffen Playhouse, is an enjoyable and well-cast dark comedy/drama that is nevertheless marred by a well-meaning subplot that neither pays off in any interesting way nor adds anything to the main story.

It's 1964 in Jackson, Mississippi, and dentist Bill Perch (Ed Harris) has just taken up what he hopes to be temporary residence in The Jacksonian motel. His wife, Susan (Amy Madigan), has kicked him out of the house for reasons of her own, but the optimistic Bill thinks they'll work things out quickly. His daughter Rosy (Bess Rous) visits Bill regularly at the motel, where she meets creepy bartender Fred (Bill Pullman), who flirts with her, and Eva (Glenne Headly), the morally flexible motel worker who thinks of herself as Fred's fiancée. As time passes, however, and there is no rapprochement between Bill and Susan, things are about to take a darker turn for everyone.

Harris gives a masterful performance as Bill, and he details the dentist's descent into nihilistic hedonism with grim hilarity. His character arc is simultaneously tragic and humorous, and it's so rich that one wishes the play focused on his story more. Madigan serves the play well, with a performance that alternates Susan's hesitant nature with blasts of anger and pettiness. Susan is a character that's meant to be frustrating, but the drama might be more resonant if Henley had provided more of a reason Bill would want her back. Rosy is a bit odd, and Rous plays up her awkwardness effectively, although as written the character never seems like a real teenager but more like a literary gimmick, the wise child spouting quirkily poetic observations.

Pullman does a lot with a little as Fred, his eyes in a permanent squint, eternally working the angles. Henley seems to have spent the least amount of time on Fred, but Pullman makes every moment count, from his barely-concealed lies to Eva about his "medical condition" to his spectacularly rinky-dink demonstration of "sword swallowing" to Rosy. He's a hoot. Headly gets more to work with as Eva, and she's excellent as the floozy, enthusiastically damaged goods that doesn't understand why no one wants to marry her.

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Director Robert Falls gets strong work from his cast, and he stages the tricky material, with its structure of flash-forwards and direct audience address monologues alternating with the main action of the play, very smoothly. Henley has about two-thirds of a funny if sad play here, but her insistence on shoehorning in a subplot about the parlous state of civil rights in the 1960s South works to the show's detriment. That story never gets fully explored or resolved to any satisfactory extent, so what it actually does is rob the main storyline, that of a dissolving family, of the complete focus it requires. Walt Spangler's two-room set provides proper ambience, a realistic location before which all the Southern Gothic weirdness can prance and flail.

"The Jacksonian" plays at the Geffen Playhouse through March 25. Tickets are available online.