Moira MacDonald and Dan Moran inHiding Behind Comets(Photo © Fouad Salloum)
Moira MacDonald and Dan Moran in
Hiding Behind Comets
(Photo © Fouad Salloum)
If you belly up to the bar at the 29th Street Rep, you'll learn everything you need to know about the house mandate. I don't mean the bar that Mark Symczak has designed as the setting for Brian Dykstra's Hiding Behind Comets; I mean the lobby bar where, alongside the refreshments, soiled wife-beaters T-shirts featuring the 29th Street Rep logo are sold for 20 bucks a throw. Here also, a hand-written sign blares, "Where Brutal Theater Lives."

The 29th Street Rep palookas ain't just whistlin' "Dixie." Theirs is the place where Tracy Letts' Killer Joe bowed in Manhattan; where blue-collar specimens are often spread on a grimy slide and put under a battered microscope for close examination; where the artistic directors gleefully make a specialty of dramas -- or dark comedies -- in which violence constantly threatens under civility's thin veneer. Here, you can almost always count on thrown fists, wielded gats, and/or spilled blood as stage noir -- a relatively rare commodity -- rules.

Well, the theater has done it again with Hiding Behind Comets. To ticket-buyers who reveled in Killer Joe as well as in Letts' Bug, which recently ended a successful run at the Greenwich House Theater, Dykstra's speeding-on-sheer-nerve melodrama ought to satisfy any craving for new shocks. The piece incorporates the kind of twisted twists that had patrons in my row gasping as the theatrical pedal was pressed to the metal. It has the sort of far-fetched premise that thrillers of this type traditionally boast. Hiding Behind Comets is what Hollywood green-lighters call "high-concept" and want described to them in no more than a sentence or two. (Hollywood truffle pigs are sure to come sniffing around this property pronto.)

Oh, yes, Dykstra -- who's also known for his fearless political satire -- has a whopper of a high concept for this play. Here it comes in a sentence, so readers who wish to avoid "spoilers" might want to skip the new couple of parargraphs of this review: A sinister galoot calling himself Cole and purporting to have been an inmate-guard during the Jonestown, Guyana mass suicide and murders shows up at a northern California dive because he believes that 22-year-old bartender Troy and his twin sister Honey could be the bad-seed offspring of dead Jonestown leader Jim Jones.

Granted, this is a hard-to-swallow concept, but one from which you can't tear your eyes and ears as the plot thickens like witches' brew. Cole (Dan Moran) doesn't immediately reveal his past to Honey (Moira McDonald), Troy (Robert Mollohan), or Troy's girlfriend Erin (Amber Gallery), who are hanging out until the grungy establishment's wee-hours closing time. Instead, he indulges in a few surprise antics so's to throw the youngsters off guard. Not that the kids are easily thrown; they're a hard-as-nails trio, with Honey perhaps the hardest of them. Only when Cole tells part of his hair-raising story -- including the information that his wife escaped from Jonestown before the fatal poisoned-cocktail hour -- does Troy put two and two together.

Throughout the second act, Cole makes his intentions explicit and Troy has to determine a way to get around them, with or without his sister's help. The siblings, between whom mental telepathy courses, find an impromptu plan of action. Whether it succeeds won't be gone into here. Suffice it to say that director David Mogentale and fight director J. David Brimmer dig deep into their resources well before lighting designer Douglas Cox's final blackout. I can also tell you that Brimmer, who's addtionally credited with special-effects design, and special-effects construction person Laura Moss put a lot of stage blood to use.

The action of the play is set in 2001. Dykstra stretches for his title, a reference to the suicides of the 1997 cultists at Rancho Sante Fe, who thought they'd be transported via UFO to somewhere in space behind the passing comet Hale-Bopp. The dramatist is right about there being Jonestown survivors: Deborah Layton, who left Jones' clutches a few months before the fatal day, wrote about her flight in Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor's Story of Life and Death in the People's Temple. But it's stretching credulity to suppose that somewhere there lurks a surviving compound guard-killer who goes off the mental deep-end and starts believing that either he or the deceased Jones has fathered twins. Some spectators will laugh up their sleeves at the notion; others will enjoy the fun-house ride, and I'm with them.

Dykstra offers four ravenous actors the opportunity to chew Mark Symczak's rich-in-sleazoid-detail scenery until it's tattered, and director Mogentale -- who usually struts his formidable thesping talents on this stage -- allows the cast to go for broke. As Cole, Dan Moran could scare the pants off Al Capone. So might Moira MacDonald, who is tiny but somehow seems to loom over the footlights while declaring her libidinous self. As Troy and Erin, both itching to get it on, Robert Mollohan and Amber Gallery are initially tough, sexy, and nubile; Mollohan plants his feet even more firmly in the later, volatile sequences. Since Dykstra has been diabolical enough to dream up this fish tale and to give so many talented people a chance to sell it, I'm ready to go along with him far more than half-way.