Chaz Bono’s bravura performance as a serial killer incarcerated for life is the best reason to catch Lee Blessing’s gripping if frustrating Down The Road, now playing at Hollywood’s Lounge Theatre.
Bono plays Bill Reach, whose nineteen murders recall the thirty committed by Ted Bundy in the mid-to-late 1970s. Like Bundy, Reach stalked his female prey in the most public of places, often charming them into his car before overpowering them, sometimes raping them (alive or dead), often disposing of their bodies in a wilderness gully where wild animals could feast on their rotting flesh. Even more grisly was Reach’s Bundy-esque predilection for decapitation and his fondness for keeping severed heads around as souvenirs and/or sex toys.
Clearly not someone you’d like to spend even a minute alone with, yet this is precisely what married 30something journalists Dan and Iris Henniman (Kyle David Pierce and Barbara Howlin) have chosen to do over the next month or so as they take turns interviewing Reach for a book all three have an interest in seeing published.
For Dan and Iris, publication will lead, if not to fame and fortune, then at least to career advancement. For Reach, it would seem to promise an extension of his fifteen minutes of fame (and perhaps even more female fan mail than the flirtatious letters and sexy snapshots he seems already to be receiving on a regular basis).
And so Dan and Iris alternate one-on-ones with this baby-faced monster in an interview room attached to a maximum security prison while the other either whiles away the days in their dingy motel room or cruises the Interstate or becomes fixated on a rusted water heater visible from their room. (Nights are spent trying to get pregnant.)
As Reach describes each murder with unnerving casualness, his two interviewers find it more and more difficult to leave their subject behind, and Down The Road’s like-it-or-hate-it conceit is that Reach’s presence in the couple’s thoughts goes from mental to physical (at least as far as the audience is concerned), one scene even having Dan and Reach watching TV together on Dan’s motel room bed, lying prone side-by-side like a couple of teens at a sleepover.
Though this conceit outstays its welcome in a final scene so wacko I doubt even the actors know for sure what the playwright’s intentions are, it does serve to illustrate just how impossible it becomes for Dan and Iris to leave behind a man whose twisted words and deeds have infected their psyches and their souls.
Like Reach himself, Down The Road refuses to explain the reasons behind a man’s choice of career in serial murder, and though this is doubtless deliberate on playwright Blessing’s part, it makes for a less than entirely satisfying play. And if there are deeper meanings behind Iris’s obsession with that water heater or Dan’s with “the Interstate,” I’d be hard pressed to tell you what they are.
Still, like an accident site you can’t look away from, Down The Road exerts a perverse fascination, particularly with Bono giving a charismatic, quicksilver performance of a man whose mood can change on a dime, someone who knows just how to get under your skin and stay there. (No wonder Dan and Iris find it impossible to leave Reach behind even miles from the interrogation room.)
Under Jordan Shappell’s confident direction, Pierce and Howlin offer solid support in performances that gain power as Dan and Iris find themselves less and less in control of their thoughts, their emotions, and their very lives.
Down The Road’s production design is bare-bones. Scenic designer David Mauer has created a simple set (hotel room and adjoining interview room) that looks more finished with the Lounge Theater’s brick walls than it would elsewhere. The program does not mention lighting, costume, and sound design but all three are effective if not extraordinary.
Down The Road is produced by Bono for Phoenix Fire Productions. Chesare Bono and Dylan Rourke are associate producers and stage managers. Rourke, Patty Miller, and Chris Cusano cover the roles of Reach, Iris, and Dan.
Down The Road may not entirely succeed as a theatrical examination of what makes a serial killer tick. As a performance showcase for a media figure not previously known as an actor, it more than does the trick.
Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.
July 26, 2015