How many Irish mobsters does it take to change the Michigan economy?
I’m not sure what people who like romantic comedy will make of Corktown, by Detroiter Michael Brian Ogden, playing at the Purple Rose until March 5. I hate to sound like such a cackly old witch so soon after Valentine’s Day, but most romantic comedies drive me insane with their zany, contrived cute meets, followed by a few hours of a fluffy, spunky heroine in some kind of pickle from which she’s rescued by the guy she thought she hated. Corktown is a kind of final solution to that damsel-in-distress romantic comedy, and I loved it.
It’s set in a fictionalized present-day Detroit, where Irish gang violence has reached such a pitch that it seems to offer a way out of Michigan’s unemployment crisis. At least five characters have full-time jobs in the Irish mafia, and another (perhaps not so unrepresentative of state economics) is hoping to make a living in Ann Arbor studying it. Mostly, though, Corktown is about two young hit men, Joey (Matthew David) and Laurence (the playwright himself), and a sweet girl named Jenny (Stacie Hadgikosti).
You can’t meet much cuter than this. Joey has shot and is about to dismember Jenny when she wakes up. They fall in love in the usual two-hour rom-com way, trading saucy banter, but–something to tell the grandkids!–bullets fly while Jenny trips over body parts and makes mac and cheese. By the end, the stage is awash with blood, and nearly everyone has both shot someone and been shot. The scary mob boss is played by Tom Whalen, who continues to surprise me. I’d never have guessed he had a sociopath in him, but a bit he does in the beginning, dancing around the stage eagerly prodding dead bodies like a kid poking Christmas presents under the tree, is about as chilling a performance as I’ve seen.
And meanwhile, the rom-com deconstructs. Toward the end, Jenny turns to Joey and begs plaintively, “Take me with you.” I’m guessing about 80 percent of damsel-in-distress Westerns contain this line, but here it’s not strictly formulaic. Jenny, unlike old-style damsels, is quite capable of leaving without him. That’s the kind of queasy sport Corktown makes of romantic comedy, and to tell you the truth, I’m not sure the playwright is completely in on the joke.
I first saw this play in a reading at the Chelsea library last year (one of the more fabulous opportunities for free entertainment in town–the Purple Rose occasionally tries out plays both in Chelsea and at the AADL), and for some reason, the dialog between the two hit-man buddies didn’t sing with as much dark originality in performance as the reading seemed to promise. But here’s something that is fresh: director Guy Sanville brought the full armory of stage violence to this production. You don’t see that every day on stage (it’s messy) and actually never see it at Purple Rose, which specializes in polite suburban dramas of midlife angst. Fight acrobatics, blood bags, and operatic slow-motion climaxes and explosions end with a final, hilariously gratuitous touch that comes after the final curtain.