THE BLOG
11/06/2013 11:49 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

First Nighter: Beth Henley's 'The Jacksonian,' the Seth Rudetsky-Jack Plotnick 'Disaster!'

In Beth Henley's quasi-Southern Gothic play The Jacksonian, the establishment of the title is a Jackson, Mississippi motel with decorated-for-Christmas bar that Walt Spangler has neatly designed.

It would be nice to say that the stage-right bar is busy, but the only denizens -- seen over a period of several months -- are guesting dentist-on-his-uppers Bill Perch (Ed Harris), his occasionally visiting estranged-because-sometimes-battered wife Susan (Amy Madigan), his manic 16-year-old daughter Rosie (Juliet Brett), possibly suicidal bartender Fred Weber (Bill Pullman) and blowzy motel worker Eva White (Glenne Headly).

The Perches spend time in the stage-left room that Bill occupies. He's hoping Susan will take him back. She's hoping anything but. Eva also drops in on official and unofficial motel business. Fred remains in the bar, mixing a drink from time to time but mostly attempting to extract himself from the promise of marriage he's made to Eva.

The Jacksonian -- imported to The New Group's Acorn stage from Los Angeles's Geffen Playhouse, where it premiered in February 2012 -- begins with Rosie, wrapped in a blanket, howling that a murder is going to take place. It's immediately followed by Bill, wearing a bloodstained white shirt, entering to scoop ice from a large container.

Whereupon the action waffles back and forth from the holiday season -- which isn't very festive for these folks -- to the preceding summer and fall months. During the action, they either sit in the bar or gather in Bill's room.

Playwright Henley, darker here than in most of her previous works, intends, it would seem, to display five misfits as their sorry expectations disintegrate -- and Rosie's desperate opening outburst edges toward fulfillment. Actually, that's what she does display, but as she progresses through the intermissionless 85 minutes she's allotted herself, she has trouble working up sufficient interest in the inhabitants.

Maybe what's called for here is more information on the characters. As it is, they're a quintet of sad sacks, with Bill not only sad but -- unable to practice dentistry as a result of some misdemeanor -- also dangerous. This is clear, of course, from the early glimpse of him in the soiled shirt.

What involvement there is in the exercise is Robert Falls's vigorous direction of the actors -- four of whom are already known as more than reliable -- and one of whom, newcomer Brett, gives unquestionable signs of making herself welcome in the manner of previous stage performers like Peggy Ann Garner, Phyllis Love and Sandy Dennis.

Well-known trivia: Harris and Madigan are married, and, from the evidence they've given by working together frequently, have to be a much happier couple than the Perches Bill and Susan. It'd be interesting, don't you think?, to eavesdrop on Harris and Madigan discussing the challenges of taking on Bill's and Susan's sorrows.

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Be advised that Jack Plotnick and the always risible Seth Rudetsky have joined a series of 1970s chart-toppers into a send up of that decade's disaster flick The Poseidon Adventure. They've called it -- what else? -- Disaster!.

And yes, camp followers, it's mighty entertaining. The plot -- really an excuse to get a crowd of terrific singers to reprise a tidal wave of golden oldies -- involves the opening night of the Barracuda casino on a ship moored to a dock that happens to be floating over shifting tectonic plates. You guessed it: There's a humongous quake, after which some characters survive (the young lovers, natch) and some don't (the villainous ship's captain, natch).

Rudetsky and Plotnick -- please don't call the cruiser-tuner a rude/plot -- probably could have trimmed their fandango, rather than suggest they want to include every '70s click ever written. Only for starters, the ditties run to "Alone Again, Naturally," "Don't Bring Me Down," "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother," "Hooked on a Feeling," "Hot Stuff," "Knock on Wood" and "Knock Three Times." Often, for maximized amusement, Rudetsky and Plotnik pun on the song titles or play on the lyrics.

Then, of course, and under Plotnick's direction (Rudetsky plays a disaster expert, whatever that is), there are those top-drawer belters. Undoubtedly all of them voice-maven Rudetsky's chums, they are, among others, the great Mary Testa, the great Jennifer Simard, hot newcomer Matt Farcher, Haven Burton, Charity Dawson, John Treacy Eagan, Michele Ragusa and young Jonah Vernon as identical fraternal twins. (Remember this is fiction.) It should go without saying that every one of the singing comics makes it all worthwhile.

With that large cast in the relatively small St. Luke's auditorium, Disaster! may look as if it's been produced for $1.99 (his it been?), but it plays as if it's titanic, if not Titanic.