REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
“The very powerful are always fools,” intones Kit Maxwell, the one character with a conscience in Jason Wells’ 2009 black comedy, Men of Tortuga, a taut and ironic thriller about corporate terrorists conspiring to plan a dastardly assassination. The show opened at the Elite Theatre Company in Oxnard last weekend and plays through May 15.
A key aspect of suspense is when the audience knows something that the characters on the stage do not. Men of Tortuga employs a 180-degree twist to this rule: the characters know what’s going on, but the audience doesn’t, and Wells is not about to tell us.
The play opens in a boardroom in a high-rise at an unspecified location. Three well-dressed businessmen are plotting to murder a hated rival, with the help of a thuggish technician who will be responsible for putting their plans into action. The decisions concerning who the intended victim is and what that person’s crime or threat to the plotters was has already been discussed and Wells sees no need to recapitulate it to the audience. We join them in progress – a slice of life in the middle of the conspiracy. After awhile, we realize that we are going to be kept in the dark as to these pertinent facts, which are central to the motivations of the characters, so we are forced to shrug and go along with them, following their machinations to their conclusion.
At the outset, we beg for an explanation. Who are these people? Are they on “our” side? Who do they represent? Has the intended victim committed a crime of national urgency and the conspirators are a modern day Impossible Missions Force? Or is this a smaller conflict; a turf battle? Or maybe these people don’t exist at all and Tortuga is some kind of wild-eyed allegory. Even the name “Tortuga” never comes up in the dialog. What is the significance of the word? (Tortuga is the Spanish word for “turtle” and is also the name of an island in Haiti. Neither definition works here.) None of this seems to matter. What does matter is that these would-be terrorists don’t know what the hell they are doing. Their plan, which starts as a simple sniper’s rifle shot through a plate glass window, is not properly thought through and their scheme appears doomed because of its low percentage of success. The conspirators consider a number of alternatives, escalating the targeted attack on a single individual into wholesale carnage of an entire building. One interesting aspect of the plot is that the conspirators are deliberating in the same kind of board room where their prospective victim will be sitting, thus, the assumption that they are rivals in a common field. One even begins to wonder if they themselves are the intended victims of a reciprocal plan from the other side and an equally heinous plan is being hatched from that quadrant.
Kit Maxwell, played by the elegant Ronald Rezac, is the senior member of the group. We recognize this status because he starts the play with his back to the audience, gazing out of the high-rise window, and doesn’t speak his first line for more than five minutes, while the others argue. When he does speak, it is with a cooler calculation than that of his more inflammatory partners. Maxwell is the only one who considers an alternate plan, a detailed, 400-page compromise prepared by skittish Allan Fletcher (wonderfully played by Adam Womack) who Maxwell meets in private in a nearby anteroom. Fletcher’s plan, whatever it is, would render the assassination unnecessary, but Maxwell won’t have any of it. Rezac’s scenes with Womack are intricate chess matches with Maxwell having the upper hand over the flummoxed Fletcher.
James Svatko and Michael Perlmutter play the other conspirators, Tom Avery and Jeff Kling, while Scott Blanchard plays Taggart, the jackbooted, menacing hit man who will do the actual dirty work. The testosterone-laced arguing is fueled by the incessant downing of shots of hard liquor (one bottle of which is the ironically named Larceny brand of bourbon) that helps ignite the fiery tempers, peeling off any layers of civility these goons might ever have had.
As their plans unravel, so does their decorum, and in the end, one man is dead and another has been attacked. We never do find out what these self-described vigilantes are trying to do, whether it is a noble, world-saving sacrificial deed or merely cold-hearted murder of a hated rival.
The acting by the cast is uniformly superb. The frequently overlapping dialog works like a musical fugue, with rising and falling cadences (mostly loud and profane, at fortissimo levels). Perlmutter is especially explosive as Kling, sometimes spitting his lines with venom like a cobra while Blanchard is perfect as the near-psychotic Taggart.
Is Men of Tortuga enjoyable? The comedy is dark in the spirit of David Mamet’s most incendiary works, and we are not quite sure whether to laugh or just gasp at the insanity of these uniformly despicable people. The perverseness of the play might be funnier if it weren’t so close to reality in this day and age where rampant terrorism with no logically defined targets has become commonplace. The Men of Tortuga‘s plot is almost sensible by comparison, even without an explanation.
Men of Tortuga is for adults only, with frequent, harsh profanity.
Men of Tortuga plays through May 15 at the Elite Theatre Company. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.