'Crumble' at Single Carrot Theatre

Cutting-edge work introduces playwright Callaghan to Baltimore

May 06, 2010|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

When you see Justin Timberlake — all right, a character portraying him — take a deep breath, puff out his cheeks and prepare to fly, the sight is at once absurd, funny and a little sweet. You could say the same about many scenes in the absorbing play that finds this pop music idol flitting about in a seriously troubled young girl's fantasies, boasting of his avian capabilities and providing her with various forms of comfort.

But there's a decidedly creepy streak, too, in Sheila Callaghan's "Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake)," and that edginess — make that cutting-edginess — is explored effectively in a tight, nimble staging from Single Carrot Theatre.

This production marks the Baltimore debut of a work by the New York-based Callaghan, whose plays have enjoyed success around the country and whose writing has been featured on Showtime's "The United States of Tara."

"Crumble," first produced in 2004, finds the playwright digging into several tricky issues about family ties and pre-teen alienation. Nothing unusual about such topics, except that Callaghan devises a whole new, weird context for them. We don't just meet confrontational, 11-year-old Janice and her awkward mother, Clara, but their dwelling place.

In the ultimate manifestation of that old expression, "If only these walls could talk," there's a character called the Apartment. He has plenty to say about past residents, past abuse and neglect ("I used to be a mansion"), and he takes the residents' current troubles personally.

As for Janice, imagine a cross between the duplicitous little girl in "The Bad Seed" and the possessed soul in "The Exorcist." This is one messed-up kid. She doesn't bathe or brush her teeth (her breath is described as "napalm"). Janice's fantasy world isn't confined to visions of Justin, but includes bizarre tea parties for her dolls, where bleach is the drink of choice. When she presents her mother with a Christmas wish-list, things go from strange to stranger.

Meanwhile, Clara has demons of her own and, like her daughter, retreats into a dream world inhabited by her own personal hero — a very obliging Harrison Ford, no less. But she can't shake the reality that confronts her, or the past family history that gnaws at her and Janice. At one point, Clara's cat-centric, ever so slightly oblivious sister, Barbara, asks her: "Are you afraid of your own daughter?" Oh, yeah.

Not that the play is all dark. "Crumble" is often wickedly funny, and the cohesive cast, tautly directed by Aldo Pantoja, digs into the ironic, crude, droll, unsettling and just plain silly sides of the play with equal flair.

Giti Jabaily gives a particularly potent performance as Janice. It's not just all the voices she goes through while assuming the identity of various dolls — valley girl-ese, boyish nerdiness — or the chilling, guttural baritone she musters when spewing profanities (that's when it gets real "Exorcist"-y). Something deeper, richer gets conveyed along the way, and that helps intensify the most explosive point of the drama.

Genevieve de Mahy's portrayal of Clara is sensitive, subtle and sympathetic. When she says of Janice, "I am losing her drop by drop," the frustration, fear and helplessness register strongly. (One quibble: Given that the character is revealed to be an imaginative gourmet, I think she'd pronounce "bruschetta" correctly.) Courtney Weber conveys Barbara's eccentricities and tenderness persuasively.

As the Apartment, Brendan Ragan is a vivid presence, decked out in frayed, dated clothes that mirror the state of the building (Heather C. Jackson did the astute costume design). And, whether bounding into the action as Justin or Harrison, or gently slipping into it as Janice's departed father, Elliott Rauh sparks the production with telling nuance and considerable style.

Joey Bromfield lighting and bare-bones scenic design (a suspended rope proves quite versatile) enable the action to flow easily through the theater's compact space.

Tim.smith@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/clefnotes

If you go

"Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake)" runs through May 23 at Single Carrot Theatre, 120 W. North Ave. Tickets are $10-$20. Call 443-844-9253 or go to singlecarrot.com.

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