Dodging death

By CAROLYN CLAY  |  November 18, 2009

But then, Kuntz's character, an obsessive loner named Quint, is as shaped by kitsch as he is by a tragedy that took place before he was born. In 1970, while he was still a fetus, his six-year-old sister — whom his father later insisted looked just like the Morton's salt girl — went missing, and that turned the parents he was to inherit into different people. Not that they were Ozzie and Harriet to begin with: mom was depressive, and dad was an inventor whose specialty was dreaming up poetic means of executing criminals. No surprise that dad was suspected in the disappearance of his daughter, or that he became a suspect again when his wife walked into the ocean and drowned. In the wake of all this, Quint finds himself, like the Biblical Lot's wife, looking back — except that what he looks back on is a void where his sister, and the happy normal life she signified, should be. Is it any wonder that we meet him in the midst of a suicide attempt that's interrupted first by an obscene phone call and then by the news that his estranged father has been in a car accident and is lingering in a coma?

There are elements in Kuntz's strange, piquant tale — in which a soupçon of autobiography is ballooned by imagination and then wrapped in a mix of 1970s television, '80s rock, and the occasional Bach cello suite — of the Jon Benét Ramsey murder case, the Kim Edwards novel The Memory Keeper's Daughter, and the formative experiences of a gay man haunted by memories at once sensual and bruising. At one point, Quint spots the heavy-breathing memory man who keeps calling his cell phone afloat in the sky and appeases the specter by donning a panda suit and serving up a committed, mechanically gyrating dance that takes him into the audience and back. But mostly this wounded soul tells his story from the bleak, blinking confines of his father's hospital room, where he tries to connect with a man beyond connection.

For all its ramblings down a memory lane strewn with also-ran candy, sugary cereals, and encomia to celery and The Love Boat, The Salt Girl is the creepiest and most potent thing Kuntz has written since the chilling two-hander Sing Me to Sleep. And in a raw, brave performance in which he sheds most of his zany mannerisms (not to mention his clothes), the actor makes us weep for his peculiar train wreck of a character, serving up painful history and recipes for Waldorf salad, even as we laugh at him.

J.T. Rogers replaces Graham Greene's quiet American with a naive, boat-rocking one, but the ghost of the British writer nonetheless hovers over his 2006 play The Overwhelming (presented by Company One at the BCA Plaza through November 21). Set on the brink of the Rwandan genocide, the forceful if overstuffed work centers on a tenure-driven, hail-fellow US academic named Jack Exley who comes to Kigali in early 1994 at the invitation of his college roommate, a Rwandan physician treating children afflicted by AIDS whom Jack hopes will become the centerpiece of a publish-or-perish book about around-the-world grassroots activism. Trouble is, when Jack arrives, towing a cartload of posturing enthusiasm along with his African-American second wife and a disaffected teenage son from the first marriage, his old friend has disappeared without a trace, and everyone from cocktail-party diplomats to the police thinks Jack ought to keep his nose out of it. Meanwhile, ethnic hostility between the recently ascendant Hutu and the Uganda-backed Tutsi is percolating like the gross natural product of Starbucks, and unheard strains of "Something's Coming" are in the air.

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