"Two minor Shakespearean characters walk into a bar..." Right away, Dad's Garage Theatre's Indulgences comes on like an old-fashioned joke.
As the play continues, though, you're not exactly sure what kind of joke playwright Chris Craddock is telling. Fortunately, Craddock displays such a delirious sense of comedic invention, spanning from metaphysical notions to gags about booze and sex, that Indulgences is always a funny joke, and one that plays to the strengths of the Dad's ensemble.
Indulgences partly presents a gay spoof on Macbeth. Two small roles from "the Scottish play," young Malcolm and Fleance (Tim Stoltenberg and René Dellefont), emerge as lovers hatching a treasonous plot. Indulgences offers more than a riff on Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which commented on the meaninglessness of human existence from the point of view of marginal courtiers in Hamlet.
Craddock's play could be called a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for the improv-theater generation. Indulgences not only satirizes Stoppardian mind games, but goofs on the macho dialogue of red-blooded American writers such as David Mamet. The play's main character, identified as "Salesman" (Matthew Myers), is a profane smooth talker who could have stepped right out of the office of Glengarry Glen Ross, except that he sells "indulgences." A genuine article from Catholic history, indulgences could be described as "Get Out of Purgatory Free" cards that living people can purchase with cash to ensure a comfortable afterlife.
If that wasn't enough raw material for one play, Indulgences also features an amusing subplot that parodies The Prince and the Pauper, in which two strangers (Chris Blair and Tony Larkin) decide that they're so alike, they'll exchange places and see if anyone in their lives notices the difference. The fast-paced production, directed by Kate Warner, doesn't bother to explain why men in Elizabethan tights hang out in the same bars as guys in business suits. In fact, part of the humor is the way conversations can switch from modern street slang to faux Shakespeare. "Malcolm is the most straight-up guy I ever planned to murder with," the Salesman says. "He is as false as a three-gallon codpiece!" Fleance replies.
Not surprisingly, Indulgences plays more as a series of clever, interlocking sketches than as an emotional character study. It's a perfect match for Dad's Garage's improv-influenced performing style, which sometimes leads to thin characterizations even as it encourages camaraderie with the audience. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern was one of Dad's Garage's first productions, and the then-young theater didn't seem to know what to do with the material's heavy implications. By contrast, Indulgences is built for speed, advancing its ideas about free will while giving the cast room to, well, indulge themselves.
Plus, the frenetic climax makes a terrific punchline as an unexpected hero tries to forestall the usual tragic Shakespearean ending, with bodies all over the floor. Some plays you watch suspecting the writer began with a provocative scene or premise, then had to struggle to tie them up in a satisfying way. Indulgences' resolution gets such big laughs, and brings the themes together with such clarity, you almost wonder if Craddock wrote the last part first. It's the kind of topsy-turvy show in which getting it backward makes perfect sense.
Indulgences. Through April 12. Dad's Garage Theatre, 280 Elizabeth St. $12-$22. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m. 404-523-3141. www.dadsgarage.com.
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I absolutely loved this play. It was hilarious throughout, and I especially liked seeing the…