Theater Review: Jobsite's Mindgame is a seriously funny brain-teaser

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Horowitz’s answer seems to be that we find in our reading about Jeffrey Dahmer or Charles Manson vicarious relief for our own urgings to throw off all decency, and deal out disfigurement and death without compassion or scruple. As Carl Jung would put it, we deposit so much repressed violence in our overloaded Shadow, we can hardly help but be fascinated by those who actually acted on the impulses we repeatedly disavow. Not that we’d do this ourselves...but isn’t there something magnetic about chainsaw murderers and cannibals? Don’t we recognize in their riotous refusal of all civilized order something not entirely alien?


That a heart of darkness lies at the core of civilization has been a commonplace of writers from Hawthorne to Conrad, from Thomas Mann to Peter Weiss. But Mindgame avoids the typical seriousness of most such commentators, and treats us to a rollercoaster experience that’s more often comic than it is horrific.


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Full of surprises and reversals, it begins with the simple visit of an author, one Mark Styler, to the office of Dr. Farquhar, head of Fairfields Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Suffolk, England. Styler has written two books about serial killers and is researching a third, about a lunatic named Easterman who killed nineteen citizens, including his own father and mother.


Easterman, who was judged not competent to stand trial, is incarcerated at Fairfields, where he spent his first ten years in silence. Now Styler wants to interview him — in six one-hour sessions — but has to convince the perplexing Farquhar to overcome some unexplained reluctance.


We learn a few inconclusive details: that the staff at Fairfields is interested in “redeeming” the criminally insane, that Farquhar has been influenced by the anti-psychiatry of R. D. Laing and the psychodrama techniques of Jacob Moreno, that the asylum is divided into sections named “Bee,” “Honey,” and “Flower.” We also meet Farquhar’s Nurse Plimpton, who dresses like a tart in a schoolboy’s fantasy, and seems inexplicably panicked to find Styler in her boss’ office.


Add mysterious music, half-eerie, half-childish, and portraits on the wall that don’t respect the law of inertia — and the result is a mystery that’s never as solved as you might think. If Farquhar and Styler are engaged in a mindgame, so is the audience with each one of them, and with playwright Horowitz.


If there’s lots to like in this script, there’s even more in the casting of Brian Shea as Dr. Farquhar. Shea is one of the Bay area’s most splendidly talented actors, and his absence from local stages over the last couple of years has been a crime in itself. Now he’s back — and he’s as superb as ever.


Confused and cagy, standoffish and then vehemently demanding, Shea gets better and better as the mindgames unfold until finally he’s completely riveting. This is an actor whose attention to detail has always been his greatest strength — he finds a hundred colors in a part in which lesser talents find three or four — and to watch his Dr. Farquhar is to be propelled around the spectrum at sometimes breakneck speed.


Unfortunately, he doesn’t have an equally prismatic foil in Jason Vaughan Evans as Mark Styler. Evans is excellent when his character is in an extreme mental state, but when he’s more or less at rest — through much of act one, as it happens — he doesn’t come across as a real writer at all, or even British.


That usually fine actress Elizabeth Fendrick isn’t quite satisfying either: her discomfiture at the play’s start is so excessive as to seem a caricature, and she never has much opportunity to settle down into reality.


David M. Jenkins’ direction builds steam cleverly, though, and Katrina Stevenson’s costumes make sense for Dr. Farquhar — a brown suit with a vest — if not for Styler — a coat over jeans. Brian Smallheer’s wonderfully hokey psychiatrist’s office set is full of obviously phony books, crude paintings on the wall (one of a dog), and a life-sized skeleton. I don’t understand the large armoire fronted with plastic sheeting though: what’s it supposed to be for?


Oh well, not a big problem. In general, Mindgame is a fast-moving, fascinating and often funny brain teaser with a serious subtext. It keeps us guessing from first moment to last and nevertheless has much to say. I very much enjoyed it — and I think you will too.

Why are ordinary, law-abiding people so fascinated with serial killers? This is the question that Mindgame, Anthony Horowitz’s psychological romp now playing at Jobsite Theater, attempts to answer while carrying us along on a wild and entertaining ride.

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