Theater Review: Catastrophic Theatre’s Crave

Sometimes less really is more.

Catastrophic Theatre’s Crave consists of four terrific actors in peak form, seated throughout in four chairs, speaking the remarkable lines of Sarah Kane, contemporary alternative theatre’s pre-eminent poet of despair, directed with illuminating brilliance by Jason Nodler.

That’s it. Just the quartet of players, the words and their delicately tuned and astutely timed delivery.

The result is one of the most exciting theatrical events you’ll experience all year. No hype, flying effects or gazillion-dollar budget required. (Eat your heart out, Spider-Man.)

You’ll quickly realize that Carolyn Houston Boone, Matthew Carter, Greg Dean and Mikelle Johnson by all rights should be strapped into those chairs. Crave propels them, and the audience, on a 45-minute roller-coaster ride, careening from yearning to horror to hopelessness, with startling swoops and hairsbreadth turns that would make the most whiplash-inducing amusement park ride green with envy.

Kane (1971-1999) was a key figure in Britain’s 1990s “In Yer Face Theater” movement, along with Mark Ravenhill and Jez Butterworth (whose Jerusalem is currently the toast of Broadway.) Exploding on the scene with the shocking violence of Blasted in 1995, Kane was initially vilified (“disgusting” was a typical mainstream press response to Blasted), but championed by the Royal Court Theatre and such modern masters as Harold Pinter. She wrote five plays before committing suicide by hanging herself, at age 29, in 1999.

Crave, her penultimate play, premiered in 1998 and represented something of a sea change. Moving away from her previous works’ overt violence and defiant nihilism, Crave is comparatively mellow and insistently minimalist, everything pared to the bone. No narrative. No description of stage action. No character names, even. The four players are identified in the script only as A, B, C and M. Like everything else in Crave, each audience member can interpret the significance of that progression as he or she pleases.

The four speak of love and loneliness, addictions and betrayals, attraction and revulsion. They relate their struggle to find satisfaction, connection, understanding. They lament and rage, jeer and plead. Their outbursts almost always subside into bewilderment, helplessness and despair. Most lines are brief and delivered in rapid sequence. Occasionally, a longer runaway monologue explicates a remembered trauma or current obsession.

The four sometimes register as individual characters, but at others seem expressions of a free-form subconscious. The figures might even be — as in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women — different facets of one persona — as they all are, in fact, refractions of Kane’s struggle and ultimate surrender.

Certain lines recur periodically, mantra-like. “You’re dead to me.” “It’s not my fault.” “I feel nothing.”

Sometimes, repetition of a single phrase (“What have they done to me?”) makes up a whole speech.

Some lines are philosophical axioms, whether bleak (“No one survives life”) or reassuring (“Everything that happens is supposed to happen.”)

Some exchanges make wise-guy logic of nonsense: “Do you hear voices?” “Only when they talk to me.”

There are witty aphorisms suggesting a latter-day Oscar Wilde: “Never keep souvenirs of a murder.” And clever exchanges that could be right out of a sophisticated comedy: “I need to be seduced by an older woman.” “I’m not an older woman.” “Older than me, not older per se.”

The four actors make each role distinctive and detailed, every line spontaneous and authentic. Boone radiates a forlorn grace and wry resignation. Carter combines biting wit and bitterness, anxiety and futile fury, to great effect. Greg Dean is a tower of burnt-out rage and desperation, intensity dissolving into ineffectuality. Johnson brings unique edge to her complex evocations of sarcasm, pain, despair and hysteria.

As director, doing less than ever in terms of physical action, Nodler has outdone himself. His staging is a crash course in body language, getting maximum emotional impact from the subtlest tilt of the head or crossing of arms. Nodler has conducted this quartet for voices masterfully, perfectly calibrating its rhythms and dynamics into one long movement. You won’t believe the power Nodler and his actors generate with one virtuosic sequence of rapid-fire “Yeses” and “Nos,” followed by sequential, primal screams — constituting the play’s riveting climax.

“I write the truth, and it kills me,” Kane declares in the script’s most nakedly autobiographical line. The playwright is gone, but in Catastrophic Theatre’s inspired rendition, Crave blazes with life.