In his first play, Dennis Lehane mines dark mysteries in flyover country
In a humble Southwestern bar tended by a chatty waitress (Lorraine Olsen), three pairs of customers on the edge of nowhere discuss the past and future with a certain growing desperation. Coronado, though the title of the play, isn't exactly the setting. It's one of the up-and-coming towns in the area, referred to in passing as not a bad place to be something to aspire to, maybe. In other words, Coronado is the goal, the ideal, or the bit of luck perennially nearby a mock-up El Dorado just off the interstate.
This one, at least, comes from a writer who knows what he's doing. Dennis Lehane's reputation as a novelist of the hard-boiled genre, including sordid redemption tales like 2002's Mystic River (HarperTorch), makes the subject matter of his first play a promising enterprise. In SF Playhouse's able if uneven West Coast premiere (the play debuted in New York in 2005), Coronado unfolds intriguingly, in gritty but witty dialogue heady with a whiff of destiny or doom. If the past plays constant companion to the three couples warming the Naugahyde booths and barstools in Lehane's barroom noir, it's worked so cunningly into the plot and mise-en-scène that it starts to take on the unmistakable air of fate.
By the end of the first act, you begin to get some idea of what these people have in common, besides proximity to Coronado. Finding out is half the fun. For Gina (Kate Del Castillo) and Will (Will Springhorn Jr.), the couple in the booth stage right (and officemates turned adulterers), the hyperbole of cooing love talk gives way to a deadpan decision to do away with her husband, who's also his boss (invigoratingly played with good 'ol boy verve by Phillip K. Torretto). Meanwhile, in the booth opposite, a psychiatrist (Louis Parnell) and his fidgety, chain-smoking, drink-slugging patient (Stacy Ross) discuss their own illicit affair in less than professional, rather threatening terms. And upstage by the bar, recently released convict Bobby (Chad Deverman) has a cool one with his old man (Bill English), a desperate character with a killer's grin who'd seriously like to know where Bobby stashed the plump diamond they heisted together before Bobby took two bullets to the head and landed in the pen.
With less rigor and poetical imagination than Denis Johnson but more compassion and insight than, say, the Coen brothers, Lehane's noir crime mystery weaves from these strands a psychological and existential tale that begins to read, with effortless dark humor, like a modern-day frontier exegesis. But as the barroom and its endless country vista transforms in the second act to a barren field haunted with evil deeds and irrevocable acts (the moody sets skillfully realized by Bill English), the drama meanders despite the coming together of various narrative threads over the weighty specificity of a single plot of earth.
Lehane's Southwestern setting doesn't offer the same familiarity and depth of scene that come with his New Englandbased thrillers, which may contribute to the waywardness here. Director Susi Damilano keeps the pace lively and the performances from her strong cast focused throughout, but one can't help feeling that the heaviness is a bit forced, the thematic seriousness kind of lightweight.
Still, Damilano's cast helps make the going worthwhile. Del Castillo and Springhorn deliver admirably complex, intense performances. English takes on the part of Bobby's father with infectious glee, a wild-eyed ferocity glinting just behind the expansive machismo of his bar-side manner. He and Deaverman share some of the play's more tense, tripwire moments.
At the same time, Bobby's worried reiterations concerning his psychopathic father in flashbacks with girlfriend Gwen (a vivacious Rebecca Schweitzer) that set up for us the bungled heist as well as the blood-quenched well of emotional turmoil between father and son seem overdone. The Bobby and Gwen story, meanwhile, barely compels. More moving is the resolution achieved between patient and shrink, as Ross and Parnell transition gracefully from fearfully menacing one another to divulging secrets and vulnerabilities and, finally, offering each other small but meaningful gestures of support.
Like a tipsy raconteur, Lehane's morality tale starts to lean heavily on the bar by the end, with a graveside breakdown that is too predictable and sentimental to really grab us. Then again, the denouement back in the old barroom itself (by now grown quite familiar if not familial) has a certain low-key classical appeal.
Through April 26
WedSat, 8 p.m. (also Sat, 3 p.m.), $20$38
SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter, SF
(415) 677-9596, www.ticketweb.com