“Rank,” by Irish playwright Robert Massey, is an unremarkable, derivative, and predictable piece that is neither fish nor foul. Billed as a “darkly comic thriller,” it is hardly noirish enough to be a thriller, nor is it funny enough to be considered a comedy. Because the script lacks any dramatic or comedic tension, we remain uninvolved with the characters and what happens to them. At times their behavior seems unmotivated, so the play’s impact is even further eroded.
The action, set in Dublin, begins as racketeer Jackie Farrell (Ron Bottitta) berates cabdriver Carl Conway (Kevin Kearns), ostensibly for gaining weight and generally letting himself deteriorate. But Jackie is really enraged over Carl’s gambling debt to him, and he warns that the debt must be fully paid by midnight or there will be dire consequences. Hovering nearby is Jackie’s lame-brained son and enforcer, Freddie (Jason Killalee). Terrified, Carl goes to his father-in-law, George Kelly (David Schaal), who is railing against his garage’s transformation into a self-service station. George kicks in some money, along with Carl’s fellow cabbie Bush (Karl Maschek), and the three go to Jackie’s house to try to get Carl an extension. Assuming that they have come to threaten him, Jackie refuses to listen, a stance that seems completely arbitrary, particularly for a man who usually studies all the angles.
Then the backstory is revealed. It seems that George was once a gambling addict and owed Jackie, who was at the time a close friend, a great deal of money. When Jackie was sent to prison for six years, his family was cared for by George, so upon being released Jackie forgave the debt, but he couldn’t excuse his old buddy for turning away from him and his way of life. Now he promises to waive Carl’s debt if Carl and George will pick up a bag and bring it back to him without opening it. The two men agree, knowing that the bag contains money accidentally left behind after a bank heist. When they finally return, the bag is empty. They vehemently deny having taken anything, and Jackie ultimately lets them go. At the very end we learn what really happened, but the information, apparently intended to be dropped with a bang, lands instead with a whimper.
Despite the play’s failings, director Wilson Milam establishes a headlong pace and elicits totally committed performances from his actors. Bottitta conveys a smoothly sinister quality interspersed with strong outbursts of anger, and Schaal is a great adversary, equally fierce but clearly more humane. Kearns projects an amusing, sometimes pitiable, often maddening air of childish innocence and naiveté. Killalee provides some rare comic moments when Freddie confuses reality-television shows with documentaries. Maschek also provokes laughter as Bush tries to conceal the fact that he is “shagging” Freddie’s wife.
It’s too bad that such good work is enlisted in a lost cause.
Presented by and at Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A. March 23–May 12. (310) 477-2055 or www.odysseytheatre.com.
Critic’s Score: C-