Jeff Verlanic, left, and Salina Chatlain star in Cyclone.
Not often does a deep-fried chicken head found in a box of McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets signify the meaning of, well, everything. But in one scene of Ron Fitzgerald’s wickedly witty and somber play, Cyclone, a salt-of-the-earth bartender named Joe (Craig Menteer) becomes momentarily fixated on a television broadcast about an unexpected unhappy meal. Joe’s only patron, an equally old-school cop named Martin (Bobby Gutierrez), is unimpressed. “It’s ugly,” Martin says of the story, “but so is life.” And he threatens to leave if Joe doesn’t change the channel.
The quick, irreverent exchange is typical of Fitzgerald’s bitter play, which opened this week at the Crystal Theatre in another exigent contemporary production by Montana Rep Missoula. Throughout Cyclone—which made its New York debut just two years ago—characters are prone to humorous tangents or delightfully rambling yarns, whether questioning the authenticity of yogurt-eating bicycle cops depicted on television or the universe’s ultimate connection to glazed donut holes. But every conversational detour occurs against the gray backdrop of terminal angst in nowhere New Jersey. The laughs—and there are many—come at a price because the audience knows Fitzgerald’s script will ultimately settle back on its central sobering point: life can be appalling.
Or, as the main character, Mitch, might phrase things: it just fucking sucks. Cyclone opens with Mitch (Jared Van Heel) on the evening following his father’s funeral. He’s driven to a convenience store looking for a pack of smokes and a 64-ounce soda cup in which to carry his father’s ashes. Dad was a police officer, Mitch drunkenly explains, who was killed in a store just like this one in a burglary gone wrong. Dad was also lacking in parental skills. But all of that’s beside the point now—Mitch has no clue what to do with the ashes save for carrying them with him in a Mountain Dew cup until a better idea emerges.
Any hope for a better idea rests in a cast of misfits surrounding the downtrodden Mitch, and it’s with this crew that Fitzgerald and director Chris Evans mine for laughs. Gutierrez stands apart as Martin, the partner of Mitch’s father, delivering some of the most memorable diatribes in the production with a perfect cop-speak inflection and drunken philosopher’s sway. He has a line about frozen dog sperm that still has me laughing. Bill Wade plays an odd neighbor always dressed in a bathrobe and a stained white shirt who mooches beers off Mitch in exchange for unsolicited and surprisingly sage—albeit long-winded—advice. His best pearl of wisdom includes jock itch, an angry deer and, somehow, The Sound of Music. Timmy L’Heureux brings a level of amusing naiveté to Bob, the convenience store clerk thrust into Mitch’s world by accident. And newcomer Jeff Verlanic exudes blithe slackerdom as a skater who sweeps Mitch’s girlfriend away for a day of drugs and play at the boardwalk; his persuasive stoner vibe threatens to steal multiple scenes.
But Cyclone is destined from the start to end in tears, not laughs. Playing the straight couple to this colorful collection are Mitch and his live-in love interest, Erin (Salina Chatlain). She works at a donut shop, and since his father’s death Mitch doesn’t work at all. She’ll try anything to motivate Mitch, even desperately retelling the story of when she fell in love with him on the roller coaster of the play’s title, but he stubbornly sits around all day drinking.
Both Chatlain and Van Heel wear the battered looks of their characters convincingly. Her shoulders slump at every rebuke; the only light comes into her face when the skater sloppily attempts to sweep her off her feet. Van Heel’s eyes seem to grow glossier with every swig of Maker’s Mark, and crazier with every frustrating dead-end on the trail to answers. Contrary to the extended rants of those around him, he speaks in blunted phrases and one-word replies. By the end of the play, the physically chiseled Van Heel just looks like a slouched mess of a man, bottle still in hand.
Cyclone’s wild ride is curious in that, much like a roller coaster, it ends pretty much where it begins. But along the way there are fantastic twists, especially in the performances and wandering dialogue. The perspectives are always changing, thanks to a simple but efficient set design by Mike Monsos that projects images against frayed corrugated metal to abstractly transform the plain Crystal Theatre into a barroom, donut shop and trailer park. There are also those uncomfortable bumps and grinds of a roller coaster—the types of jolts that remind us how machinery can break down—in a few scenes that don’t quite gel. (The second act was far less polished than the first on opening night, and production elements still in need of ironing out—crashing waves, for example, didn’t become audible in a beach scene until it was nearly done.)
But rest assured the ride itself is well worth the ticket. In fact, it may even be worth jumping back in line for a second turn. Because while life may be ugly, there’s something striking in how Fitzgerald and Montana Rep Missoula have framed their view of it. Cyclone continues nightly at the Crystal Theatre through Saturday, March 15, at 8 PM. $10 Thursday/$15 Friday and Saturday.