Cul-de-Sac reveals suburban darkness

Wade A. Vaughn in the heart of suburban darkness
Justin D. Gallo Photography

In Daniel MacIvor's play, the cul-de-sac in question really is just the terminus of a dead-end road. It certainly was a dead end for Leonard, the central character in this one-man show.

Leonard lived there for years, got to know his neighbors, and even befriended the lonely teenage girl next door. His dead end, however, came late one Sunday night when an attempt to look for a little companionship ended violently.

Over the course of the 90-minute Loudmouth Collective show, brought brilliantly to life by actor Wade A. Vaughn and director Natalie Novacek, the events of that evening are relived by the residents of the neighborhood, who share not just their recollections but slowly reveal the character of the cul-de-sac itself.

The concept brings Rashomon to mind, but unlike Akira Kurosawa's classic film, it isn't the events that are in dispute but the motivations that underlie them. It's up to Vaughn to bring each of these characters to life, which he does, dancing among eight distinct portraits. It's a mixed lot of people, from a crusty veterinarian to a pretentious couple who first met at the local Gilbert and Sullivan Society.

Vaughn inhabits each of these characters, at first via interview-style recollections of the night and the characters' interactions with Leonard, and then finally at a tumultuous Christmas party that brings all of the players together.

We learn that the events of not just the murder but of the neighborhood itself are seen differently by each character. And Leonard, from his perch in the beyond, can see the truth that even the characters can't see about themselves. The crusty vet, for example, thinks that his act of putting pets out of their misery is a good one. It likely is, except that the pets aren't always at the end of their lives (and there is more than one missing pet in the neighborhood).

It's clear that Leonard never felt secure in the neighborhood or even in his own skin. When tracing the start of his troubles, the gay man sardonically notes that he should have tried to like hockey more. The self-effacing tone makes Leonard engaging, but it also reveals the pain that lives in his heart.

This sounds like a rather tough evening, but MacIvor's script is facile and funny, even though there is a black hole at the center. In death, Leonard seems to be much like he was in life — sardonic, self-effacing, and a little bit scared of what's around the next corner.

The balance of the characters from the neighborhood is like that as well. They have their predictable exteriors but there are other, more rounded emotions running inside. Teenage Madison is the most engaging. The 13-year-old refers to the adults around her as "knobs," complains about her lawyer father (who does come off as a real jerk), and of the dreams she's been recording in her journal over the years.

Cul-de-Sac could easily collapse. After all, a quiet suburb revealing a darker heart is certainly not novel. The characters could easily slide into cliché and the murder at the center could be just tawdry instead of tragic.

MacIvor's script provides the depth, but it is Vaughn's performance that carries the day. Easily slipping among all of the characters, Vaughn never loses sight of the story that drives the piece. He builds separate personas (Leonard, six neighbors, and, in a frightening late turn, Eric the murderer) that interact on the fly. That comes to a head at the Christmas party, when Vaughn plays seven characters, quickly shifting from befuddled hosts Samuel and Virginia (the G and S lovers) to lower-class Eddie and Joy to the terminally cynical Madison and her emotionally absent father.

All of this is done on a bare stage at Open Eye Figure Theatre with just some audio cues (by Katharine Horowitz) and subtle but effective light design from Sarah Brandner. The rest comes down to the actor, who dives in and crafts an entire living, breathing neighborhood out of his performance. It may not be the most pleasant place to visit, but it certainly should bring our own home streets to mind.

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