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Rachel Miner and Joe Murphy
in Blue Surge
(Photo: Michal Daniel)
Policemen aren't really supposed to date prostitutes. You're probably not even supposed to make friends with them, as Curt (Joe Murphy) does with a hard-luck blonde named Sandy (Rachel Miner) in Blue Surge at the Public Theater/Anspacher. But Curt isn't a great cop, anyway: As Rebecca Gilman's kitchen sink drama opens, he and his partner/best friend, Doug (Steve Key), are in the process of messing up a straightforward raid on the "massage parlor" off Route 29. (Blue Surge is set in an unnamed "mid-sized city in the Midwest" where the whorehouse inhabits a former office building, next to the Ground Round). Meanwhile, Curt's somewhat shrill fiancée, Beth (Amy Landecker, a likable actress in an unlikable role) is hassling him because he hasn't yet made lieutenant, and she loathes Doug because he's a crude jackass.

Curt and Beth's unstable relationship will be tested severely as the events of the play unfold, as will be Curt's unstable life in general. Like Long Day's Journey into Night, another play recently directed by Robert Falls of Chicago's Goodman Theatre (where Blue Surge debuted last July), this play is one of sour, dark realism, where things start out not so good and don't get much better. There are patches of comedy, thanks largely to the clowning of Doug--a genial goof who never realizes what an idiot he's being--and his often drunk paramour, Heather (Colleen Werthmann). Heather is the no-nonsense hooker-turned-bartender who helps herself to plenty of the house liquor, covering her tracks by taking just one shot from every bottle. When Curt shows up at her bar, Heather finds out he's a policeman and immediately rescinds the free shot she'd offered him. "I'm going in the back," she screams, "to give free shooters to all those people in there who are not cops!"

But, hey--cops are people, too. After failing to nab Sandy in the sting operation, Curt asks her out for a drink, suggesting that he wants to meet her "just as a guy, not as a cop." Soon she's hanging out at his place, helping him study for a forestry exam (Curt's dream deferred is to give tours at the local nature preserve) or showing up tearful in the middle of the night. Curt gets something from Sandy that Beth doesn't offer him, and it's not what you think. Blue Surge features two prostitutes, scantily clad women and a naked man, as well as a through-line about anal sex, but the play isn't about lust. It's about class.

When Beth and Curt finally have their big fight, his relationship with Sandy is only the starting point; basically, all of the couple's issues come down to money. Sandy's family is rich ("Not rich," she says stubbornly, "Middle class. Upper middle class." So, rich). Curt's is very, very poor, and he's still struggling to pay the medical bills for his mother, who died uninsured. Beth wants Curt to make more money and clearly resents him for his own lack of ambition; she accuses him of sabotaging his prospects, of wanting to be poor. This may or may not be true, but Curt clearly has his own well of resentment: He accuses Beth of only dating him as a statement, that statement presumably being "Look at me, I'm dating a poor person." And so Curt has turned to a prostitute, strictly for more pleasant conversation. But as the Curt/Sandy dynamic grows more complicated, things start to get dangerous; suddenly, Curt is risking his friendship with Doug (whom he punches), with Beth (to whom he does something that is arguably worse than punching), and his job.

This is Drama-with-a-capital-D. Though Gilman's themes are powerful and she's exceptionally adroit with dialogue, there's a forced feeling to much of the plotting. It doesn't help that Blue Surge unfolds episodically through short scenes that end abruptly; each time the lights go up we've been bumped forward in the plot a few hours or days. It's all very carefully constructed and as well calibrated as Walt Spangler's super-clever, slide-on sets.

Still, the pleasures of Blue Surge are undeniable. For one thing, plays--or movies or books or whatever--are rarely this explicit and intelligent regarding the centrality of money and class to love or to any sort of human relationship. Okay, so Curt and Beth are from different economic backgrounds; it's not such a big deal, right? Well, it is, and Gilman asks us to wonder why. Sandy's background is much closer to Curt's...but does that mean that the hooker and the cop should be together and Beth should stick with her fellow members of the bourgeoisie?

In bringing out these themes and in correcting for the rather mechanical nature of Gilman's plotting, director Falls is hugely aided by his cast. Landecker might have found ways to make Beth less annoying but, for the most part, this five-person ensemble realy inhabits these sad sack Midwesterners. Werthmann and Kay get extra points for making Heather and Doug such charming ne'er-do-wells. Murphy's Curt is a brooding iceberg of a man, his feelings frozen deep down inside of him, while Miner's Sandy is a wreck, her emotions flying everywhere.

"Blue Serge" is Curt's favorite Duke Ellington song, though Beth has had to explain to him that it's about a cheap blue suit, not a great pulse of sadness. These two just don't perceive anything in the same way--but, as Gilman's drama causes us to ask, what two people do?

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