A User’s Guide to Hell, featuring Bernard Madoff
The hope that bad people will get what’s coming to them is innate. Even as children, we are comforted by the belief that the bullies will one day be punished. Sure they take your lunch money but, with any luck, they’ll have to repeat the third grade. And though we may claim to be rising above, all we are really doing is making a strategic retreat.
If we’re honest with ourselves, turn the other cheek really means be patient. It’s an ugly instinct reinforced in scripture through the story of The Rapture, among others. In short, believing that very bad people go to Hell helps us cope.
Everyone wants to see Bernie Madoff to go to Hell. "A User’s Guide to Hell, Featuring Bernard Madoff" puts him there. Lee Blessing’s new play, up now at Atlantic Stage 2, certainly boasts a potentially satisfying premise. Sadly, the result fails to realize that potential.
The play starts with good old Bernie (Edward James Hyland) finding himself in the middle of Manhattan. But something isn’t quite right: the buildings don’t have doors. Even so, there’s no reason for him to assume he’s in Hell. There are no fires, no screaming demons or debilitating pain. For all Bernie knows, he’s just dreaming.
Enter Verge (David Deblinger), Mr. Madoff’s clownish guide. Verge informs Bernie that he is indeed in the (not so) fiery pits of Hell, the only evidence of which are the deafening crashes bellowing from all sides. Verge is terribly frightened of the loud noises and implores his student to follow him to someplace more quiet.
When he agrees, Bernie learns the only way to travel in Hell is through a foamy, amorphous portal called "The Substance." It’s terribly unpleasant but not as unpleasant as the Verge’s "quiet place: the sewer.
The rest of the play is spent wandering through Hell and talking to various residents. The male residents of Hell are all played nicely by Eric Sutton. The female residents are played with equal skill by Erika Rose.
Finally, after searching and searching for what his Hell would consist of, Bernie is left alone. As it turns out, being alone is Madoff’s Hell. And nothing could be worse.
But then. A surprise. The roof opens up, revealing that we are not in Hell at all. In fact there isn’t one. All dogs go to Heaven. With that, Mr, Blessing gives us his existential parting shot: don’t look for vengeance in the afterlife because it ain’t coming. Nothing we do here matters.
Hyland has a few strong moments as Bernie but the performance is incomplete. Deblinger’s manic approach to Verge is grating and distracting. To be fair, neither of these men are given much to work with. The parts are more vessels for ideas than realized characters.
Michole Biancosino’s staging is sparse and inefficient, leaving the stage static for long stretches at a time. Ben Hagan’s lighting complimented Kevin Judge’s smart sets perfectly, but the bright bulbs that flashed in the audience’s face during the scene changes were unnecessary. Alienation is fine when contextually supported but infuriating when arbitrary, as it was here.
Blessing’s chosen style of writing matches the philosophical theme of the play. Harkening back to Euripides, it’s written as a series of questions and answers, leading to more questions. It’s an interesting enough exercise in critical thinking but it doesn’t make for compelling theater.
Theater has evolved from its Greek roots and the audiences’ expectations have evolved with it. Contemporary theater at its best weaves questions into a driving narrative in such a way that they sneak up on us, leaving us surprised and excited to see where they lead. It isn’t enough to come right out and ask them anymore. Doing so underestimates us.
That is the biggest problem with "User’s Guide." It promises us a journey that we never take. Indeed, in the end, Blessing almost makes us feel like assholes for wanting to take the trip at all.