MacIvor is well known in his native land and has received critical acclaim in New York for such plays as Never Swim Alone and See Bob Run. His superb, darkly comic drama In On It earned him both an Obie and a GLAAD Media Award in its run in 2001 at P.S. 122, where his current show is also playing. MacIvor likes to experiment with play structure; in Cul-de-Sac, he ekes out information in a non-chronological way until the traumatic event at the heart of the work is revealed. However, the play doesn't have the complexity of some of its author's prior efforts and it fails to sustain the tension necessary to make this moody mystery story work.
The actor-playwright portrays nine different characters in this solo show. Ostensibly, each is supposed to talk about Leonard but inevitably goes off-topic, focusing on his or her own concerns. Unlike some other solo performers who take on multiple roles, MacIvor does not disappear into the characters; age and gender are conveyed in broad strokes, and some of the figures are limned more convincingly than others.
Early in the play, we learn that Leonard, a gay man who lived alone, has died. His exact cause of death -- murder? suicide? -- is not yet clear. We know that he emitted a long, drawn out cry of "N-o-o-o-o-o-o-o!" in his final moments, a cry that echoes throughout the neighborhood and provides the jumping off point for most of the characters' reflections on the events of Leonard's last night. One character, a retired veterinarian, compares the cry to the sound that a cat makes when put to sleep; another remarks how it mixed with a recording of Gilbert & Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance, which also curiously emanated from Leonard's home.
Considering the importance of this strange noise, it's fortunate that Cul-de-Sac boasts excellent sound design by Richard Feren, who also contributed original music. Feren layers sound on top of sound, creating a haunting aural environment that is the production's strongest feature. Kimberly Purtell's lighting design is also effective, at first: Bright lights aimed directly at the audience are utilized well initially but are annoyingly overused toward the play's end.
Director Daniel Brooks is also listed as the show's co-creator and dramaturg. Therefore, it's unclear which aspects of the production should be credited to or blamed on him rather than MacIvor. Nearly all of the character monologues could stand some trimming, as the audience gets the point of each fairly quickly. A flashback to a neighborhood Christmas party is awkwardly handled, and the final character introduced -- a male hustler named Eddie -- is written and performed superficially. Since Eddie is the one who actually reveals just how Leonard died, this is particularly unfortunate.
Though Cul-de-Sac is disappointing as a whole, it shows traces of its author's talent. Some sections are quite funny while others offer insight into the pettiness of individuals when confronted by tragedy.