Regular attendees of Baltimore’s Single Carrot Theatre have no doubt grown accustomed to the company’s habit of transforming its flexible black box on North Avenue into a seemingly infinite number of theatrical settings. For their latest effort—a pitch-perfect rendition of Sheila Callaghan’s 2005 play Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake)—director Aldo Pantoja and scenic designer Joey Bromfield create a simple, bare space, empty but for a length of rope hanging from the ceiling.
This rope is used to great effect by several cast members as they alternately slouch and propel themselves across the stage—at times it is the only thing holding them upright—and none more so than Brendan Ragan, who has been tasked with playing an apartment that (as “he” never ceases to remind us) has fallen into disrepair. How does one play a ruined apartment? It helps immensely to be wearing Heather C. Jackson’s inspired costumes; in his motley patches, held together by tape and bits of sagging wallpaper, Ragan resembles a hobo crossed with a jester, or perhaps a down-on-his-luck vaudevillian, yet his words and demeanor suggest something darker: the smoldering rage of a spurned lover.
The objects of this apartment’s rage are its current tenants: a harried chef named Clara (Genevieve de Mahy) and her 11-year-old daughter, Janice (Giti Jabaily). When it comes to maintenance (whether of buildings or people), Clara is a lost cause—it is all she can do to pull herself through another day as the one-year anniversary of her husband’s death approaches. Janice seems even more lost—she has no friends at school and no longer bathes. (Sometimes, her mother notes, “her breath is yellow like napalm.”) She sings vulgar songs to her dolls and buries herself in oversized headphones—listening, Clara supposes, to a band with a very strange name spelled in all capital letters: N-S-Y-N-C.
Clara calls her sister, Barbara (Courtney Weber), for advice, though Barbara’s area of expertise is not children but cats (she owns 57 of them). “Boys,” is Barbara’s swift diagnosis, a not entirely inaccurate guess, though of course the “boy” in question is Janice’s dead father (Elliott Rauh), who wanders the perimeter of the stage like the ghost that he is. Meanwhile, the apartment crumbles around them … and plots their demise—perhaps by broken floorboard, perhaps (in an especially chilling scene) by dangling electrical wires.
In spite of the title’s glib reference to bubble-gum pop, Crumble is a deeply felt, thrillingly theatrical play. Pantoja underscores the drama—and Callaghan’s evocative dialogue—with a quietly mesmerizing soundtrack by the Baltimore-based instrumental rock band Yeveto. Even the inevitable appearances of Justin Timberlake (Rauh), whom Janice adores—and the rather-less-inevitable appearance of Harrison Ford (Rauh again), whom Clara adores—are folded gently into the piece’s structure without disturbing its elegiac tone. (Rauh, who resembles neither man, nevertheless captures their essence—at least as distilled by the adoring cameras: a blend of sloped shoulders and broodingly vacant expressions.)
Jabaily and de Mahy give their usually crisp performances, and Weber invests the eccentric Barbara with touching dignity even as she rattles off the names of her 57 cats. Ragan is in total command of his craft, physically and vocally; his energy fills the theatre even when he is standing still, and Pantoja and props designer Elizabeth Moyer devise ingenuous ways to involve him in every aspect of the play (including several striking telephone conversations). The program also credits two movement coaches, Melissa Talleda and Adriana Saldaña, though I’m not sure of their specific contributions to the production, other than perhaps to choreograph a hilariously appropriate curtain call.