No one writes about New Yorkers, particularly those who reside in the Bronx, quite like John Patrick Shanley … and nowhere is this more true than in his “Concert Play” Savage In Limbo.  Fortunately for Shanley fans, the actors who make up the 68 Cent Crew have just the right look, attitude, and voice to bring the Oscar-Pulitzer-Tony-winning playwright’s quirky, entirely original characters to life. It’s hard to imagine an L.A. troupe more suited to stage Shanley’s 1986 tale of a quintet of 32-year-old bar denizens in search of love.

Presiding over one particular evening’s events at the corner bar is Murk (Stephan Madar), a good-looking but humorless bartender who insists that an empty glass means you order another drink, or get out. Tonight it’s just Murk and would-be-nun-turned-drunk April (Kate McManus) behind and seated at the bar, though a few too many shots have sent April to dreamland, at least until Murk wakes her up to make her order another. Murk and April won’t be alone for long, though, for in stomps Denise Savage (Claudine Claudio) with a brassy “Where is everybody?  Where is somebody?  Where is any fuckin’ body?” In L.A., this might come across a bit over the top, but not for the native New Yawkahs who populate Shanleyland.  Linda is (in her own words) “young” and “strong,” and having just eaten “two Cornish game hens and a buncha broccoli,” she’s “got energy.” What she doesn’t have is a man.  In fact, despite her low-cut clingy dress and oomphy voluptuousness, Linda has never had a man, or at least not in the Biblical sense.  Her virginity has become an albatross around her neck, and one she just can’t seem to shake.

Next to arrive is Linda Rotunda (Angela Pupelo), every bit Linda’s match in the va-va-voom department but for whom virginity is the least of her worries.  She lost that years ago, something which Denise clearly knows, given her first words to Linda, “What’s the story? Did you get knocked up again?” No, Linda’s problem is her boyfriend Tony Aronica, who’s “gone crazy” and decided that he and Linda are through because, explains an distressed Linda “he wants to see ugly women.” 

Denise and Linda have begun to bond and to think about maybe even sharing an apartment with April when in struts Mr. Confidence, Virility, and Cool, aka Tony (Jeremy “Turbo” Luke).  It turns out Linda is absolutely right about Tony’s new hankering for ugly women because, as he puts it, “some girls you look at and some girls you don’t.  I wanna see the things I didn’t see before and let the stuff I was lookin’ at before go by. I’m thirty-two years old.  I wanna change.”

In fact, all five of these 32-year-olds are looking for change in their lives, and in the course of Savage In Limbo’s 80 minutes, most of them will get it, in sometimes unexpected ways.

Shanley has a particularly astute understanding of how male and female New Yorkers talk, and how they relate to each other. Take for instance Linda’s spot-on remark that “When a woman wants to talk to a man, it’s cause she wants the man to see her better. When it’s the other way, when the man stops you from touchin’ to talk, what’s there to talk about? It’s gotta be bad.”  Denise declares that “Men don’t go after women they think are ugly. If they end up with an ugly woman, it’s because they made a mistake.” Tony sums up just about every New York Casanova when he declares: “I got this routine down with the girl and the car and the bed,” and in those few words one gets a rather complete picture of his “dating” life up till now.

Luke seems born to play Tony, and he plays him to the hilt, all muscles and skin-tight clothes and molto macho bravado, but there’s depth here, an ability for introspection, and glimpses of sweetness.  Pupelo is such a petite stick of dynamite that one senses from the beginning that she and Tony are a perfect match and that in Linda, Tony has met his match. When Linda recalls the babies she’s had to give up for adoption, and her eyes tear up, Pupelo reveals a quite different Linda beneath the surface bravado, and it’s touching to behold.  Claudio plays Denise with such fire and intensity that she’s close to a force of nature, all the while giving us glimpses of Denise’s pain and frustration and the burdens (of virginity and living with an invalid mother) that bear down on her.  With his baritone voice and deadpan delivery, Madar gets laughs with nearly every one of Murk’s occasional interjections, yet when he suddenly dons Santa gear to cheer up April, he shows us a softer, gentler Munk.  McManus, a fine comedienne in the Madelyn Kahn-Lisa Kudrow mold, resists the temptation to make April into a stereotypical drunk, and her chemistry with Madar makes the sparks that ignite between them quite believable.

Screen and stage vet Richard Cox has directed Savage In Limbo with an absolute understanding of Shanley’s volatile, multi-layered characters.  As she has with other plays in the 13 By Shanley festival, Neda Pourang has chosen costumes which suit each character to a T, and Danny Cistone’s set (basically the same bar used in Welcome To The Moon) is just fine considering the need to have literally dozens of rapidly switchable sets for the 13-play series. Once again, sound designer Bruce Barker has selected just the right blend of songs to set Savage In Limbo in a very particular place and time.

Still, with Savage In Limbo, it comes down to the performances.  With a quintet of talented actors more than up to the challenge of making Shanley’s sometime improbable dialog sound real, Savage In Limbo strikes a performance home run.


Savage In Limbo is preceded by the brief, whimsical A Lonely Impulse Of Delight, which has Walter (Ryan Paul James) dragging best friend Jim (Izzy Diaz) out to Central Park at 2:00 a.m. to meet the love of his life who happens to be a …   Having read the 3-page playlet just before the show, I was especially impressed by how absolutely alive and real the two 20something actors make Shanley’s stylized dialog and what vivid, complete characters they have created in less than ten minutes.  First rate direction here too by veteran character actor Leo Rossi. 

Theatre 68, 5419 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
April 16, 2009

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