Stick five people in a bar, introduce conflict, keep them there for 90 minutes or so, and you have any number of plays. One of those is John Patrick Shanley’s Savage in Limbo, the quirky yet abundantly watchable 1984 dark comedy Alliance Theatre Lab has chosen to kick off its season at Main Street Playhouse in Miami Lakes.
Shanley, who later won the Oscar for his Moonstruck screenplay and the Pulitzer Prize for Doubt, populated some of his early plays with odd, extravagantly emotional characters. Savage in Limbo is one of those.
The story unfolds in a rundown, utilitarian Bronx neighborhood bar. Murk (Christian Vandepas), the taciturn barkeep, presides over the pitiable place with its pay phone, neon beer sign and an obviously dead plant he insists on watering. Murk has one key, unbendable rule: If you’re on the premises, you’re drinking. Otherwise, get out.
As she is every night, April White (Breeza Marena Zeller) is draped over the bar, kept in a carefully calibrated stupor by Murk, who seems to be sweet on her (hard to tell with taciturn guys). And on this night, three more patrons arrive to kick the drama into overdrive.
Denise Savage (Shira Abergel) is, like the other characters, 32 years old. Unlike them, she’s a virgin who lives in a cat box-smelling apartment with her mom. She’s stuck, she knows it, and every fiber of her being vibrates with the longing for change.
Unlike Denise, Linda Rotunda (Valentina Izarra) is a fast, skimpily attired chick -- hot in a trampy way -- who has already popped out several kids. She has a regular booty call with Tony Aronica (Curtis Belz), the faithless boyfriend who has just informed her that he’s decided to have sex with ugly girls, period, in the future. Linda is all weepy, and once Tony shows up, the conflict in the bar goes into overdrive.
Director Adalberto J. Acevedo, who also designed the set (Howard Ferré did the sound and lighting), gets intricately detailed, impressive performances from his young cast.
Vandepas has the toughest challenge, given the fact that Murk is about as ebullient as Clint Eastwood, but the actor shows the caring man within during a scene in which he tries to rescue April from her drunken despair. Zeller’s character is pretty much loaded, start to finish, but the actress artfully cuts through the alcoholic haze to reveal the hurts that propel her to that barstool night after night.
Izarra’s Linda and Belz’s Tony aren’t so different from the volatile characters in Moonstruck, a gal and a guy caught up in passion and frustration. And as Denise, that Savage in limbo, Abergel is a tightly wound, funny wonder. Her performance drives the production, and it holds up alongside the best work in any early-vintage Shanley.