The Angel Eaters Trilogy

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One of the pleasures derived from attending lots of Off-Off-Broadway plays is the chance to discover new talent, and Johnna Adams' wildly ambitious and mostly successful new trilogy is currently offering a bumper crop of it.

The mere fact that a relatively unknown playwright has penned an entire trilogy is worthy of respect — especially as even Tony Kushner couldn't come up with the last third of his own triptych about angels. Unfortunately, Adams' own final installment in her tale of a family with the ability (or curse) to raise the dead feels completely out of place in the context of her two previous entries.

Other than that dismal misstep, the major problem with The Angel Eaters Trilogy may be the lack of directorial through-line. Three different people direct the three plays, all with varying emphasis on the comedy over the desperation; and some of the cumulative power that comes from Adams' detail-stuffed writing is diminished under the disparate approaches taken.

The first installment, Angel Eaters, finds a family barely scraping by in Depression-era Oklahoma. But their limited funds don't prevent mother Myrtle (Catherine Michele Porter) from giving two traveling carnie workers $50 to resurrect her recently deceased husband. Of course they can't do it — but Myrtle's youngest daughter, Joann (Marnie Schulenburg), can. At a brisk 90 minutes, director Jessi D. Hill keeps the pace tight but gives the actors a slacker leash. Schulenburg comes close to being terrific as the girl who happily brings dead things to terrifying life, but Hill lets her play the simpleton for laughs a few times too many. And though Gregory Waller is superb as con man Fortune, Tiffany Clementi sometimes comes across as a refugee from a bus-and-truck tour of Tobacco Road as Joann's sister Nola.

Likewise, director Jerry Ruiz accentuates the comedy in the second play, Rattlers, set in Oklahoma in 1975, to sometimes schizophrenic effect. As Joann's nephew Osley (Jason Paradine) fights against raising the dead sister of his ex-girlfriend Ernelle (Amy Lynn Stewart), rattlesnakes, murder, and necrophilia rest uneasily next to pitch-perfect comedic timing. Taken on its own as a black comedy, Rattlers works just fine, but in tandem with what was revealed in Angel Eaters it fares less well. That being said, Rattlers is the strongest of the three plays, both in terms of the performances and the writing, and Ruiz does especially well when switching back and forth from the three plots during a tense climax. As Ernelle and her boyfriend Snake, Stewart and Scott Drummond are creepily riveting as they plot together to return Ernelle's sister to life. And as new widower Everett, Richard B. Watson manages to spit out his tough-guy dialogue while keeping an omnipresent cigarette clenched between his lips.

But though Rattler's funny-scary take on Adams' ambitious mythology occasionally lets it down, she lets everyone down with 8 Little Antichrists. A painful futuristic comedy set in 2028 California, neither Adams nor director Kelly O'Donnell has a firm grasp of the material, leaving us with an eye-rolling subplot involving sextuplets that requires Candice Holdorf to morph from sister to sister. Adams seems to have run out of the inspiration that made the two earlier plays so intense and memorable by the time she wrote 8 Little Antichrists. Instead of the terrifying bird-angel in Angel Eaters or the unbalanced Ernelle shifting from flirtatious ex-girlfriend with jangly bracelets into a Greek heroine ordering that a child be killed in Rattlers, we're left with two angels in sunglasses singing hymns to Satan, a corpse in a Del Taco trash can, and a Hostess Sno Ball joke. The strong performers — including Holdorf and Zack Robidas as a descendant of Joann — do what they can, but for anyone who has seen the power and the poetry of Angel Eaters and Rattlers, 8 Little Antichrists is a slapstick and slipshod disappointment.

Presented by Flux Theatre Ensemble

at the Wings Theatre, 154 Christopher St., NYC.

Nov. 3-22. Mon.-Thu., 8 p.m.; Fri., 7 and 9 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 1, 4, and 8 p.m.

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