The current remount of George & Co.’s critically-acclaimed Holden, first developed in New Ohio Theatre’s 2015 Ice Factory Festival, is as relevant and unnerving now as it was then, in a country long plagued by a deadly combination of murder, mental illness, and all-too-easy access to guns. Written (in collaboration with the ensemble) and directed by Anisa George (the namesake and founder of the company), the intense tragicomedy interweaves fact and fiction, fantasy and absurdity, in its exploration of the psychopathy of violence, its consideration of the impact an artist can unwittingly have on an unknown impressionable public, and its socio-political commentary on the high price we pay for individual freedom.
Named after the disenfranchised antihero of J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye, the atemporal conceit, set in a writing bunker surrounded by piles of chopped wood, brings together the troubled author (suffering from episodes of PTSD following his service in WWII) and his young daughter Peggy, with Mark David Chapman and John Hinckley (the infamous shooters of John Lennon and Ronald Reagan, who had copies of Salinger’s controversial book in their possession at the time of their crimes), and the fictional Zev, who hasn’t shot anyone yet but becomes increasingly intent on committing not just one killing, but on breaking the record for mass murder.
The imagined interactions of the emotionally immature and psychologically unstable males run the gamut from joking and taunting to fighting and bullying, as they try to cajole the stymied writer into finishing his next story — which, by implication, could inadvertently inspire more real-life violence. Dark comedy quickly descends into tragedy, with George and her gripping cast offering insights into the characters’ disturbed minds, revealing the insane motivations for their acts (including songs by the Beatles and scenes from the film Taxi Driver), re-enacting the scenes of their horrific deeds, and exploding into unrestrained fits of anger and physicality. Through it all, Salinger’s psyche is haunted by the guilt of what his words have engendered and concern for the future his daughter will inhabit.
Bill George is quiet and restrained as the tormented Salinger, caught in the nightmare propagated by the biggest fans of his book, and then comforting to his little girl, played by George Truman, after she awakens from a bad dream. Jaime Maseda is a bundle of macho hostility and hate-filled rage as Chapman, as he regularly flies off the handle, abuses his bunker-mates, and rants about his victim. Scott Sheppard brings the disarming quality of an overgrown mischievous boy to the oddly smiling Hinckley, and Matteo Scammell is chilling as Zev, transitioning from a scornful, mocking youth with no criminal history to a budding psycho-killer, readily embracing the violence that surrounds him and methodically planning his attack. Across the board, their characterizations are indelible.
The outstanding cast and direction are supported by an effective design, with alternating dark and bright lighting by Seth Reiser that shifts with the mood, and believable everyday costumes and props by Rebecca Kanach and Cem Ozdeniz. Nick Benacerraf’s set captures the feel of an isolated bunker in the woods, and Alex Bechtel’s sound skillfully balances the actors’ dialogue with telling background music, the noise of household appliances, and the shots and explosions of wartime. Together with the disquieting script, they successfully evoke the quality of a discomfiting lucid dream.
In a week that has seen yet another mass shooting by a mentally-ill gunman at an airport in Florida, we should all take heed of the timely messages inherent in Holden, which are masterfully delivered by George & Co.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Holden plays through Saturday, January 14, 2017, at George & Co., performing at the New Ohio Theatre – 154 Christopher Street, in New York City. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.