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Mtume Gant and Chris Messina
in Faster
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Adam Rapp is a surrealist; there's no two ways about it. Just when you think he's setting up a nice, meaty suspense drama -- about a group of desperate characters huddled in a basement, bickering while their victim awaits her fate in a dark closet -- the sky opens. Then the rain starts to fall, and then the rain turns into flies. After intermission, our two anti-heroes are found floating several feet off the stage, one of them in high heels, facing the mockery of a mysterious new character with a Satanic mien and a wheelchair.

Faster, now running at the Rattlestick in a production directed by Darrell Larson, is set somewhere in someone's impoverished nightmare of Chicago, a grim city that is vaguely futuristic, vaguely apocalyptic, and vaguely magical. What isn't vague, however, are Rapp's characterizations of Kitchen (Mtume Gant) and Skram (Chris Messina), the friends and mortal enemies who share not enough space in a filthy underground warren. Both are tough-talking hoodlums, their language peppered with hip-hop slang and crotch-grabbing bravado. Drawing fine distinctions between the two is among Rapp's achievements: Kitchen is the more sensitive, a man of faith despite everything ("The Lord is my...something...I shall not want," he intones); Skram is smarter but he's also a wild-eyed addict, unpredictable and dangerous.

Skram and Kitchen are small-time operators. In one of their scams, Kitchen gets a bunch of yesterday's Tribunes from the newspaper's janitor and pawns them off on unwitting commuters as today's. But somehow these two have stumbled onto a serious crime and are currently waiting for the payoff: A guy is coming from Oswego (a city some 50 miles outside Chicago) to take away the person in the closet in return for a lot of money with which Skram and Kitchen hope to buy a car and get the hell out of town.

In the meantime, they're sharing the dirty basement -- fighting, yelling, joking, and occasionally masturbating. There are two other people in the basement (designed with an appropriately grimy and claustrophobic aesthetic by David Korins). One is Skram's mentally addled brother Stargyl (Robert Beitzel); for the most part, he huddles in the corner, sad and scared, communicating only through sharp yelps. The other is the victim of Skram and Kitchen's crime, who remains in the closet for almost the entire play. Her brief visit to the outside world and her spiritual, silent conversation with Stargyl tip the balance of Rapp's play from semi-realistic to wholly not-so.

A smooch from The Man!
Messina, Gant, and Roy Thinnes
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
As the second act meanders along, much less engrossing than the first, one almost wishes that this shift hadn't happened -- that Rapp had kept Faster as a tense drama about a fascinatingly dysfunctional, ad-hoc family. Instead, the writer goes off on a series of wild tangents, pushing the story towards the end of the world and the characters to the limits of believability as they react sanguinely to a series of increasingly unlikely events. Larson accessorizes these developments with some cool special affects -- the floating, the door that opens by itself, etc.

Another special effect is Roy Thinnes as The Man -- who, with his cigarettes, wheelchair, crooked grin, and suitcase full of cash, might as well have a sign around his neck saying I REPRESENT SOMETHING. As Rapp indulges his mysticism, trying to take Faster from basement-sink drama to end-of-days epic, the writing becomes increasingly heavy-handed. Among other things, Skram and Stargyl's past is revealed in a long, rhymed (for uncertain reason), and disappointing monologue. As the rain comes down outside and the rivers swell, the question in the basement is how these two amateur villains will respond to the arrival of pure evil. Alas, the answers aren't terribly exciting; nor is the resolution of Stargyl's quiet friendship with the unfortunate in the closet.

Rapp is a wildly imaginative writer who, in the second-half of Faster, seems to have lost a wrestling match with his own imagination. More is the pity, since Skram, Kitchen, and even poor Stargyl are vivid, likable inventions -- whatever their crimes.

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