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Shoppers Carried by Escalators Into the Flames logo
Michael Shannon as Cass in Shopper Carried
By Escalators Into the Flames

(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Denis Johnson's new play has a lot to recommend it: an authorial pedigree (Johnson wrote the acclaimed Jesus' Son), an excellent cast including solid film and TV actors like Will Patton and Kevin Corrigan, a nice set by Marsha Ginsberg, and a clever title. What Shoppers Carried by Escalators Into the Flames doesn't have is an interesting or coherent script.

Another play about an unhappy, dysfunctional, emotionally-stalled family, Shoppers is a dark slice-of-life comedy concerning the Cassandra family (a contrived surname if there ever was one), represented here by violent older brother Bro, sensitive but troubled younger brother Cass, quiet sister Marigold, crazy-depressed father Oliver Wendall Homes, and Grandma. Preparing to turn himself into a rehab clinic, Cass decides to crash with dad and grandma for a little while before taking the big step; Bro, who has been away from the family for some time, just so happens to show up at the old homestead later that night. Via lots of exposition, it comes out that the boys have experienced a ton of childhood trauma involving their absent mother. Cass wants to work it out but Bro doesn't; neither does the nearly catatonic father nor, it seems Marigold--not that she ever really weighs in on the matter.

Meanwhile, the wedding of Bro's ex-wife Suzanne (whom he still loves) and Marigold's high school sweetheart Gib (whom she may still love) is set to take place. The couple-to-be makes a late-night visit to the Cassandra house and a confrontation with Bro spurs Gib to speed up the proceedings; he calls the pastor to marry him and Suzanne right then and there. Wedded, the dismal pair heads off into the sunrise; then another visitor shows up, there are some inexplicable happenings, and the play abruptly ends.

Shoppers is about people unable to move forward because they won't deal with unresolved issues. Johnson uses plenty of metaphor to make this clear; but, in case all of that is not enough, Cass verbally reminds the family at regular intervals that they must revisit the past in order to have a happy future. Yet even this simple, worn theme is nearly lost in the telling: though Johnson's absurd and sometimes shockingly dark sense of humor is the play's major virtue, Shoppers gets mired in overlong, nonsensical speeches and in the unfunny overuse of gags involving a television announcer, a yapping dog, and something about 26 shopping centers being in flames. The play's other virtue is its cast of intriguing characters, so it's too bad that Johnson does's develop them into three-dimensional beings. Too bad, also, that they never get around to actually discussing the unresolved issue that has made them into addicts and emotional cripples.

The cast works hard to keep the play afloat, though apparently with little assistance from director David Levine. Patton is sad and funny as the pathetic father but even he can't keep his character's ramblings, at first amusing, from becoming tedious. Michael Shannon and Adam Trese are very good as the brothers: Shannon should get a medal for making Cass's psychobabble sound halfway natural and Trese has a good handle on the temperamental loser Bro, the most engaging character in Shoppers. James Urbaniak does a terrific, understated turn as the young pastor but the usually reliable Corrigan doesn't fare so well in his attempt to make Gib a comical jerk. Betty Miller, Kaili Vernoff, Gretchen Cleevely, and Emily McDonnell are all endearing as the poor women martyred in this man's world of a play.

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