By Stacy Santini
One of the most daunting scenes in film is in the final minutes of 1974’s “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” when Leatherface is dancing his own murderous ballet wielding a chainsaw at sunset. It is a stunning visual into the disturbed psyche of a serial killer. There is no need to delve back into celluloid archives to experience this phenomenon once again, as Bluebox Theatre Company is brilliantly exploring this unsettling subject matter in its presentation of Lee Blessing’s “Down the Road,” at The Performing Arts Studio of New York in Port Jefferson Village.
Directed by Bluebox’s David Morrissey Jr., the play opens with an abrupt spasm disrupting the cozy darkness in this intimate blackbox theater; a large flat-screen TV center stage begins flashing familiar images. The audience is reminded of William and Kate’s royal wedding, the West Nile virus outbreak and other popular “newsworthy” stories.
In a short time the broadcasts turn extremely dark, focusing on people the public has come to know all too well: Ed Gein, John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy and Charles Manson. Interview after interview, clip after clip, Morrissey begins to open up our doors of perception and draw us into the minds of these haunted men, the actions that have made them media icons and their stories a sad reality.
“Down the Road” is a psychological drama about serial killer Bill Reach, who has murdered and raped 19 women. While Reach is incarcerated, a young married couple, Dan and Iris, both of whom are journalists, are contracted to write a book about Reach. Initially approached as a fact-compiling endeavor, the couple soon begin to unravel not only Reach’s subconscious but their relationship as well and at the same time explore demoralizing themes.
As their ambition bounces their physical bodies into a cheap motel room in this rather beige part of the world, the audience is first introduced to Iris and Dan. Played by Marquez Stewart and Bluebox mainstay Bryon Azoulay, their connection is palpable. Consumed by passion for one another discussing their dreamy expectations of starting a family, they seem like tender lambs unaware that they are being led to slaughter.
As the play progresses, their different styles of interviewing Reach are apparent as well as the way each character reacts to the intensity of their exchanges with him. Communicating their thoughts on their individual interviews with Reach into a recorder, their distractions also become evident and the toxicity of Reach’s aura slowly twists and torments not only their ability to proceed with the task at hand but their relationship as well.
It is undeniable that Stuart portrays Iris with all the confrontational, aggressive boldness that her role demands. She is terrific and perfectly balances her character’s vacillation between being drawn to Reach while at the same time being repulsed by him. When asked by Reach if she is afraid of him, she snidely responds, “Desperately,” without disrupting her dead on stare.
Azoulay’s Dan is much more accommodating and at times submissive to Reach. He begins his interactions with Reach obligingly as a great inquisitor, but his growing fear eventually arrests his questioning and manifests in a dichotomy between his desire to run and his addiction to Reach’s mania. His impassioned solo scripted moments invoke the same angst and confusion into the viewer that his character is experiencing.
James D. Schultz as Bill Reach — that should be the play’s tag line. Schultz, a solid acting member of the Theatre Three family for several years, is a prodigy. Watching Schultz sprint to the top of our local acting pyramid in such a short time has been not only a joy for his followers but an awe-inspiring accomplishment. Probably his most challenging role to date, he more than nails it — he surpasses it, so much so that audience members were shaking when his presence loomed on stage unlit, allowing the other actors to take the baton. It was horrifyingly beautiful. All were scared to death of the diabolical monster Schultz passively and slowly created.
Embarking on the stage, Schultz is handsome and inviting. With the exception of his handcuffs, his attire is mainstream — jeans, a button-down shirt and designer eyeglasses.
He looks so normal, so familiar; but then the exchanges begin between him, Dan and Iris, and we are perversely aware that there is nothing normal about Bill Reach or James Schultz for that matter.
A chronological questioning commences, and it is here we see the true talent of Schultz. Expectations of a rabid, crazed lunatic who takes life from people is anticipated, but this is not the case with most serial killers, and Schultz’s restraint in this regard is stupendous. With a blank stare, a severe sociopathic being comes alive as he describes his killings in a matter of fact tone. The audience is hearing it, but in the back of our minds we are not really believing it. Methodically, he unwinds the details of his carnage. He says things like, “It wasn’t murder, murderers have motives, I kill,” and “Don’t insult me, most people don’t torture what they hunt.”
As Schultz describes what it feels like to kill, the theater was eerily quiet, audience captivated and for a moment almost simulated a poetry reading. Eventually we see outbursts and violence from Reach that Schultz brings to a new level. He frightens the audience with a lingering energy and so much so that when his character is not the focal point, the audience is still very much aware that evil is in the room. Absolutely incredible and only the work of a true master.
David Morrissey Jr. governs this production with the intensity and passion of a veteran director. Part of the talented triad team that makes Bluebox Theatre Company tick, Morrissey creates synergy among his characters and movement on stage that will surprise you. Coached by his counterparts, Joe Rubino and Andrew Beck, this play secures their place among our local theaters and stages. Transmitting themes that might be difficult to digest such as how the media is responsible for making monsters like Reach into celebrities and identifying internal motives for these inexplicable acts of hatred and violence is no easy feat, but this small green production company succeeds on every level.
The Performing Arts Studio of New York is a special place and keeps the urban culture of the big city alive in a small town, but seating is limited. Walk fast, sprint, no run to see “Down the Road” as it won’t be here for long. For mature audience only.
The Performing Arts Studio of New York, 11 Traders Cove, Port Jefferson, will present “Down the Road” through Sept. 6. Tickets are $19 adults ($15 online), $13 students ($11 online). For more information, call 631-928-6529 or visit www.blueboxtheatrecompany.com.