Stage Review: 'Savage' arrives with new Caravan

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July welcomes a new theater company, the Caravan Theatre of Pittsburgh, and, considering the strength of their first production, this is a group to watch.

Company founder John Gresh directs "Savage in Limbo" by John Patrick Shanley, best known for his Oscar-winning screenplay, "Moonstruck," and the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning "Doubt." Like other Shanley works, "Savage in Limbo" centers on working-class, New York Italian-Americans. Here, his characters are down and out, hoping to find something -- anything -- to turn their lives around, or at least shake them up a bit.

In just over an hour, Shanley introduces five luckless 30-somethings who went to the same Catholic high school. There's the sense that they were set on a track back then and that the track stretches out before them, with little they can do but follow it. They come together in a neighborhood dive and try to find a way out of their ruts. There's an aura of "The Iceman Cometh," but Shanley's characters don't even have pipe dreams. They're desperate to find them, though, anything to give their lives some meaning.

At the heart of "Savage in Limbo" is Denise Savage, a 32-year-old virgin who lives with her mother. When Linda Rotunda comes into the bar, sobbing over a breakup with her boyfriend, Tony, Denise tries to incorporate Linda and then Tony into a future she scrambles to piece together.

It sounds cheerless and depressing but Shanley infuses "Savage in Limbo" with wicked humor. It may be a coping mechanism for them, but Linda and Denise both use fine-tuned sarcasm and mean-spirited barbs to relate to others. So, while the play is dark, the characters are funny and intelligent and the writing is witty and insightful.

The production is well-suited to the tiny Pittsburgh Playwrights space as it requires little set. "Savage in Limbo" is an actors' play, and Gresh has gathered a wonderful cast, led by Bridget Carey. She turns hard-nosed Denise into a sympathetic and believable loner while radiating the character's untapped potential.

Dana Hardy plays Linda with an air of resignation that bespeaks a woman who's been around the same block a few too many times. Linda is also quick to anger and quick to hope, and Hardy moves her through these emotions flawlessly.

Tony Bingham, Gregory Johnstone and Amy Marsalis complete the cast. All have less to work with than Carey and Hardy but still turn in strong performances. Bingham is great at mixing an existential angst into the gruff, oversexed Tony Aronica. Johnstone is very focused as the aloof bartender, Murk, and Marsalis turns the near-comatose drunk, April, into a sad study in fading beauty.

It will be interesting to see how Caravan Theatre grows, but it's off to an auspicious start.

"Savage in Limbo" continues at Playwrights Theatre, 542 Penn Ave., Downtown, through July 29. Free-will offering. 412-288-0358.

Anna Rosenstein is a freelance theater writer.


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