NEW YORK — If a surreal, downbeat inversion of a cheery 1970's sitcom sounds intriguing, then you and your therapist will probably want to see David Adjmi's new play, "3C."
Adjmi has imagined how Chekhov (and maybe Wile E. Coyote) would handle a classic American television situation comedy, based on the lighthearted "Three's Company." He's reworked the original fluffy good humor into deep dysthymia and near-suicidal depression, using absurdism and existentialism overdosed with Chekhovian angst.
The sharp-edged, discomforting production that premiered Thursday night at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater will no doubt please fans of Adjmi's previous hard-edged plays, 2011's "Elective Affinities" and 2009's "Stunning" at Lincoln Center Theatre's LCT.
Far from the carefree fare of the popular TV show, Adjmi's two girls and a guy, who spontaneously become roommates after a wild party, all have serious emotional and mental problems, as does the unhappy landlady of their rundown Santa Monica apartment building. But, hey, it's still set in 1978, so there's fun disco music and spastic dancing to lighten things up.
Varieties of existential unhappiness are played out with dialogue that's often funny and clever, if deliberately disjointed. The satire is directed by Jackson Gay, who appeared to fully embrace the spirit of schizophrenia that affects each character, as exhibited by abrupt mood swings. They constantly freeze up and stare wide-eyed into space, apparently an homage to Chekhov's despairing pauses.
Anna Chlumsky is sweetly charming as sexy, ditzy Connie (the Suzanne Somers role of Chrissy on the original TV show). Chlumsky's comedic delivery of Connie's constant non sequiturs is great fun, in contrast to Hannah Cabell's uneasy, downbeat portrayal of alcoholic tomboy Linda.
Jake Silbermann is believably conflicted as Brad, a young veteran just returned from Viet Nam who's having a sexual identity crisis. Silbermann not only has to wear a long, pale blue satin nightgown for quite a while, but his face gets painfully slammed more than once. Even more heroically, he has to keep his expression contorted to appear unhappy, confused, despairing, and eventually anguished.
Bill Buell plays landlord Mr. Wicker as extremely dislikable. Wicker makes offensive, homophobic jokes and performs limp-wristed mimicry when speaking to Brad, whom he believes to be gay, and has a truly creepy molestation scene with Linda. His unhappy wife is played by Kate Buddeke with adorable, zombie-like charm, alternating sudden space-outs with perky humor or nasty threats to the tenants.
Eddie Cahill is a breath of fresh air as annoying neighbor Terry, a swinging bachelor true to the era, who unlike everyone else in this play, has no deep feelings at all. Nearly unrecognizable from his "CSI: NY" dramatic role as a homicide cop, Cahill shakes his long hair while mindlessly strutting and preening, because uber-macho Terry's got just one thing on his mind: the need to constantly get laid.
Random bursts of dancing, as the roommates attempt to cheer themselves up or avoid serious subjects, were choreographed by Deney Terrio, who taught John Travolta his dance moves for the film "Saturday Night Fever", including the iconic, finger-pointing white-suit pose. Although the atmosphere is increasingly gloomy, period costumes by Oana Botez Ban are bright and iconic, especially Mrs. Wicker's large-print caftan and Terry's turquoise jumpsuit.
Adjimi may be trying to present serious ideas about a culture avoiding hard issues and problems by retreating into sex and drugs, but this play feels like he turned a bazooka onto a butterfly.