What with the blood, the full-frontal male nudity and what can only be described as the end of the world, it’s not really the kind of show you want to see on a date. And better not go alone either, because you’ll need someone to stabilize you when you walk out of the theater shaking. But drag a friend, an enemy or a professor along and go see the world premiere of “The Evildoers” at the Yale Rep for perhaps the most thought-provoking stage production you’ll encounter this year.
“The Evildoers,” written by David Adjmi and directed by Rebecca Bayla Taichman, follows the slow dissolution of two couples’ lives after one husband realizes he is gay. The plot, albeit depressing, seems fairly straightforward, yet somehow it manages to grapple with every problem anyone has ever considered important enough to dramatize — from spirituality to terrorism to pregnancy. Even better, it manages to do so without seeming preachy, presumptuous or overly intellectual.
A good deal of the play’s success has to do with the fantastic direction and set design. Inspired by the play’s motif of reflection, already manifested in the sparkle of an engagement ring and the metaphorical mirror of psychoanalysis, scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez suggests a fancy New York apartment with sloping reflective black walls and a shiny waxed floor. During a storm scene, torrents of rain pour down the slanted walls, making the portentous weather feel much more immediate. And at one point the entire set splits in two, a powerful interpretation of David Adjmi’s stage directions which read only, “The world breaks open.”
The set is one of the more blatant ways in which the notion of breaking up or stripping away is expressed. Yet this idea of tearing through the external shell in the pursuit of core truths, along with the concomitant theme of death and rebirth, is also expressed in subtler ways. Two characters who have known each other since boarding school consistently address one another as “old boy,” a reference to their societally privileged position but also a constant reminder of their own mortality. The play is also peppered with apocalyptic references, including theoretical comparisons of America to the Roman Empire, genocide allusions and readings from the Bible. The final scene takes place during an electrical blackout.
Most importantly, however, each character metamorphoses from a successful, put-together individual to a shattered and miserable remnant of him or herself. The four characters’ transformations are superbly and believably conveyed. The ensemble acting is excellent, and Stephen Barker Turner gives a particularly outstanding performance as an alcoholic psychoanalyst. His drunkenly endearing pontification throughout most of the play lends an essential dose of humor to some very serious issues, while his DTs and terrified stutter in the last act are convincingly jarring.
No need to break out the black hair dye this time, though; as disturbing as the play’s message may be, the performance still manages to convey a vague sense of hope by the end. It’s not entirely clear where that hope comes from, but there’s something refreshing about a play that allows for a better future without claiming to know exactly how to get there.
Michael Walkup, the Artistic Coordinator at Yale Rep and dramaturg for this production, said during a talkback Wednesday that the grippingly disturbing script was the culmination of David Adjmi’s four years of work. And on a broader scale, the production is something of a culmination of the last four centuries of theater, playing with theatrical forms from Jacobean tragedy to drawing-room comedies, while adding its own very modern twists. The size of “The Evildoers’” eyes is matched only by the immensity of its stomach: it digests as many motifs as it can see without ever becoming overwhelmed by the wide-ranging extent of its subject matter.