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Review: 'Rantoul and Die' at the Lillian Theatre in Hollywood

May 21, 2009 |  5:30 am

Rantoul and die A profane and violent odyssey through America's white-trash psyche, "Rantoul and Die" is a strangely captivating comedy -- a rude belch in the direction of tasteful theater.

Playwright Mark Roberts has created a seething suburban microcosm populated by working-class troglodytes who subsist on beer and soft-serve ice cream from the Dairy Queen. Largely plotless, the play is an anthropological study of bad behavior that treads the border between trailer-park parody and kitchen-sink realism.

Rallis (Rich Hutchman) is a severely depressed middle-age man whose shrewish wife (Cynthia Ettinger) works at the local DQ and repeatedly threatens to leave him. Along for the ride are a nosy neighbor (Paul Dillon), who enjoys putting his friends in headlocks, and a crazy cat lady (Lisa Rothschiller) who also works at the DQ.

"Rantoul" is bursting with gross-out humor and redneck kitsch. At times, you could justifiably accuse the playwright of class condescension and misanthropy. The characters come perilously close to caricature, often serving as little more than mouthpieces for the tennis-match insults that the dramatist has written for them. 

The play reaches its sophomoric apex (or nadir, depending on your tastes) in the second half after an act of violence has put one of the characters into a vegetative state.

Roberts is an executive producer of CBS' "Two and a Half Men" and there's an undeniable sitcom ambience to his play. Funny lines are delivered in an italicized manner, as if searching for a big laugh. And the characters' exaggerated idiosyncrasies feel less organic than designed from the outside in.

Still, "Rantoul" has enough mean-spirited humor to satisfy anyone with a subversive streak. Erin Quigley's direction synthesizes the play's inherent messiness into a coherent, fast-paced contraption. The costumes and sets deserve special praise for evoking a trashy world where ugliness rules and good taste goes to die.

Best of all is the cast, which tears into the material with canine ferocity. Watching them attack the play is energizing and a little bit disconcerting. Their plunge into the abyss is so complete that by the end, you can only fear for their sanity.

-- David Ng

"Rantoul and Die," Lillian Theatre, 1078 Lillian Way, Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. $20-$35. (323) 960-4424. Running times: 1 hour, 55 minutes.

Photo: Rich Hutchman and Cynthia Ettinger in "Rantoul and Die." Credit: Paul J. Marchese

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