Cars, guns, even football playoff tickets--all the major boy toys figure prominently in a squalid game of one-upmanship played for deadly stakes in the Interact Theatre Company's production of "The Root" at Theatre Exchange. Gritty staging and a quartet of fine actors at the top of their form propel Gary Richards' black comedy to riveting intensity.
The setting for this meditation on money lust that begets all evil is an appropriately seedy auto chop shop in Brooklyn, impeccably detailed by designer Bradley Kaye down to its sleazy pinup calendar and wall-mounted steering wheel collection. In the midst of a moral crisis, the downtrodden proprietor, Vinnie (Joel Anderson), musters his last shreds of courage to extricate himself--not too successfully--from the human vermin who control his life.
His supplier, Willy (Gregg Daniel)--a car thief, drug dealer and obsessive clotheshorse--scoffs that unkempt Vinnie has enough dirt under his nails to grow flowers. His landlord, Chick (Eddie Jones), a producer of pornographic films, is eager to sell the property to demolition-bent developers. But worst of all is arrogant, manipulative Jerry (Dave Florek), the corrupt cop who oversees the illegal operation, squeezing Vinnie tighter and tighter.
Colorful, actor-friendly dialogue furthers these memorable characterizations, and under Anita Khanzadian's taut direction the tension ratchets inexorably. In Vinnie's ill-fated attempt to collect taped evidence, the ensuing killing and the scramble to conceal the body, the upper hand keeps shifting unexpectedly among the survivors. While these streetwise domination games are reminiscent of David Mamet, Richards doesn't worship solely at the power shrine--there's room in his characters for personal integrity, even generosity.
Sometimes too much to ring true--Vinnie's refusal to compromise an abstract principle when Chick saves his life is a tough sell, and pulling it off convincingly is a credit to Anderson's performance. But for the most part, the characters' complexity works to the play's advantage. Evoking Willy's past as a football player torpedoed by a career-ending injury opens a window into his not-so-evil dreams, and even Jerry once had heroic aspirations. Their redeeming qualities remind us that not all gutter-dwellers were born there.
* "The Root," Interact Theatre Co. at Theatre Exchange, 11855 Hart St., North Hollywood. Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends Oct. 13. $15. (213) 466-1767. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.