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“I feel at home in fog,” says Bill Perch, the psychologically twisted dentist at the heart of The Jacksonian, Beth Henley’s slow-moving, well-acted black comedy presented by The New Group. It is easy to understand why Perch, given a pitch-perfect interpretation by Ed Harris, is wayward: his marriage to Susan Perch, portrayed by Harris’s real-life wife, Amy Madigan, is unravelling, and he has been investigated by the dental authorities for harming a patient.
A sense of disintegrating masculinity – he can no longer provide generously for his family, which also includes a 16-year-old daughter, Rosy, who narrates the interval-less evening – is something Perch shares with another guy named Bill: a character played by Jeff Goldblum in Bruce Norris’s terrific new Domesticated, which has just opened at Lincoln Center Theater. Norris, however, is concerned to show how the rise of women has sapped males of their pride in our own time. Henley, whose play was staged previously at the Geffen, in Los Angeles, sets her story in Jackson, Mississippi, where she grew up, in 1964.
Henley’s backdrop is the civil-rights era: white males are being displaced not so much yet by women as by the emboldened rise of black men. In The Jacksonian, which takes place at a Jackson hotel of that name, to which Bill moves as his marriage crumbles, an elderly black man has been accused of murder. A hotel maid called Eva, given desperate sass by Glenne Headly, thinks the man should be executed. But suspicion eventually falls on her barman fiancé, Fred, imbued by Bill Pullman with Southern-Gothic creepiness.
In some of Henley’s previous work, including her best-known play, Crimes of the Heart, such grotesque eccentricity was almost camp. The movie version of Crimes, in fact, verged on silliness, a tendency that was redeemed in part by the performance of Jessica Lange, who has surfed the wave of Southern horror currently on television (True Blood et al) to Grand Guignol heights on American Horror Story.
In The Jacksonian, unfortunately, the black humour is never very engaging. Mostly, we watch a sad family disintegrate into a bloody mess. Under the direction of Robert Falls, the effect is all too carefully managed to cause much excitement. Yet I will not soon forget the sight of Harris and Headly half-naked while partying in a hotel room. Morphine, chloroform, nitrous oxide: oh my!