Life is seriously out of joint in Christina Ham's Crash Test Dummies. An extended family hangs on in the last occupied home of a once-thriving suburban neighborhood, surrounded by foreclosed houses, wild animals, and the forces of the nameless "corporation" that has taken over for the government. Looting -- at the Whole Foods, no less -- is rampant, and even the local hospital is not immune. The power is off, supplies are low. What are they to do?
For the first half of this premiere, that's never clear as the cast flails along with Ham's unfocused script. The action improves as it goes along, finally focusing on one of the character's descent into a private cage in an attempt to live off the grid.
That's Cooper, who has come to live with his father and aunt after losing his job. He's been largely inactive for the last year, letting his wife be the bread winner at the local hospital. They and their daughter try to pretend that all is normal, but the growing forces of chaos surround them at every turn. When the power goes out, they are forced to adapt, and Cooper sees a chance to finally leave society behind and for his family.
It's a fool's errand from the beginning, as he only has a week before his father gives in and sells the house to the Corporation, fleeing the crumbling community with whatever he has left. His wife, traumatized by the attack on the hospital, also just wants to leave. His main ally ends up being his daughter Fleur, who seems to be thrilled by the chance to connect with her father. Riding amid all of these conflicts is Mallory, the aunt who is always present and always listening.
Once the play reaches this point it starts to fire more firmly. Early on there is a lot of flailing about, with attempts at overly poetic dialogue that just sounds wrong coming from this particular group of characters. The tone also fluctuates wildly, with the absurdity of the situation (did I mention there are looters at the Whole Foods?; and we first meet Fleur in a bloody cheerleader uniform) dragging the show in one direction, while the more serious, poetic moments move in another.
It's Cooper's descent into his own world that eventually sharpens this all. Until then, actor Ryan Lindberg is mainly a bundle of nervous energy interspersed with raw anger. It's pretty easy to side with his family on this one, which makes for a much more engaging back half, as those emotions turn darker, giving Lindberg more shades to play and providing a much deeper performance. The balance of the cast does solid work as well, while the Spartan stage design (Liz Josheff) and direction (Red Eye co-founder Steve Busa) work well with the material.
IF YOU GO:
Crash Test Dummies
Through April 29
Red Eye Theatre 15 W. 14th St., Minneapolis
For information, call 612.870.0309 or visit online