Gabriel Quinn Bauriedel & Sarah Sanford in Hell Meets Henry Halfway
Courtesy of the Pig Iron Theatre Company
If we want to compare theatre to the movies, Hell Meets Henry Halfway is more David Lynch/Being John Malkovich than it is Rob Reiner/The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The playwright in this case set out to write something with the novel as an inspiration, not to adapt the novel to the stage. The program notes say that the “theatrical mixtape” that is Henry is 1/3 the source novel, 1/3 the playwright and 1/3 the Pig Iron Theatre Company.
If that sounds a bit out of the ordinary, then you’re starting to get it. This isn’t an experience for everyone. Coming back from intermission I overheard the couple in front of me. “… well we can get our things and go, then.” “No….. we’ll stick it out.” I’m pretty sure people have gone to the electric chair with more enthusiasm than this fellow. Hell Meets Henry Halfway emphasizes character and feel over realism and does it well, but it’s a specialized taste.
If you’ve got the palate for it, Henry is worth your time. Everyone brings their A-game, though you might not realize it till the end. The story within Henry comes together not just through what’s said and shown, but based on what you come to know about the characters’ personalities. In other words, the actors inhabit them quite well. It’s a quality of performance that’s easy to miss; pretty much all of the characters in this play are unpleasant people and everyone’s got some shouty bits, which might lead you to think everyone is getting a good taste of the scenery.
It’s not the case though, or at least not all of it. Any group of bozos could yell their way through a surreal piece, but all the actors here manage to really inhabit their roles rather than just speaking – or bellowing – their lines. Henry radiates tension and desperation, Maya seems to be the embodiment of joyless carnality and Walchak leaves a trail of misanthropy behind him like a snail’s trail. The other three characters don’t have as much range to cover but it’s a fair trade for what enjoyable foils they are. James Sugg as Jon, in particular, gets to deliver some wonderfully funny stuff and shows a real talent for physical comedy.
Rather than a period piece they’ve put an ‘experience piece’ on the stage. Whether you’ll like what you see and feel is hard to say, but you won’t leave unaffected.
HELL MEETS HENRY HALFWAY at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
641 D St NW
Washington, DC 20004
February 2 – March 1, 2009
conceived & created by Pig Iron Theatre Company
text by Adriano Shaplin, after Possessed by Witold Gombrowicz
directed by Dan Rothenberg