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A Hoodlum in the Existential Mode

In `Those the River Keeps,' David Rabe charts the underworld of a guilty conscience

MAFIA ruthlessness and machismo have provided material for a numbing array of plays, movies, and books. The mob holds a fascination for dramatists who seek an environment in which the worst instincts of men are cultivated, giving the writer permission to explore dark realms of human behavior.

In David Rabe's new play, "Those the River Keeps" (produced as part of the American Repertory Theatre's New Stages program), the mob plays a subsidiary role, but has a strong presence nonetheless. The story concerns a former hit man named Phil (played by Paul Guilfoyle) who has yanked himself out of the New York gangster scene and moved to California with hopes of becoming an actor. He has married a much younger woman and lives in comparative peace in a Hollywood bungalow.

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In his head, Phil tries to rewrite his past brutal escapades, but guilt and self-condemnation rise to the surface in countless small and large ways. He's insecure and restless, and can't explain to his wife why he doesn't want to have a child.

One day an old mobster buddy shows up, reigniting Phil's fears that he is permanently attached to the mob and escape is useless. Sal (Jack Willis) urges Phil to join him for a West Coast hit mission, and harangues Phil for being too domestic.

The title "Those the River Keeps" refers to a Mafia practice of slitting the bellies of victims to keep the bodies submerged when dumped after the killing. Rabe uses it as the obvious metaphor for Phil's fear of being mired in his old personality and ending up like his former victims. Phil, as the character is written (and as he is played by Guilfoyle) is a hoodlum in the existential mode. He spouts philosophical speeches on the pointlessness of life as if they were a mantra that could restore his flaggi ng self-esteem.

This is where the difference lies between other Mafia buddy stories and "Those the River Keeps." Phil has an active conscience and it is tearing him apart. He hates and despises Sal and yet can't bring himself to reject the exploits the two shared. He loves his wife but can't prevent himself from hurting her.

As with many existential heroes, however, Phil's constant harping on the fact that life is essentially meaningless gets tiresome. Playwright Rabe needs to trim chunks of the dialogue, or risk turning off the audience he has wooed into Phil's corner. The bad-mouthed braggadocio that Phil and Sal engage in (which seems to be de rigueur for macho dramas along the lines of David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross" or Brian DePalma's "Scarface") quickly becomes stultifying. One moment Phil is talking in Mafia-ese a bout "broads" and bars, and the next he's driveling on about some childhood memory or other. Rabe seems to want both a believable ex-thug and an introspective one.

The play's energy is powered by funny and pugnacious one-liners. It's mostly the put-down kind of humor, but it's a welcome break from Phil's self-absorption. And there are moments where the overall stage busyness comes to a halt and emotions surface, as when the two men stumble into a touching dance together that later disintegrates into violence.

GUILFOYLE brings an amiable offhand charm to the role of Phil. Midway through, however, the actor loses his footing when he is forced to show the violent side of his character. The uncorking of Phil's anger is problematic because Guilfoyle has, up to that point, played him more as a philosopher than a killer. The sense is lost of a hit man who thinks with his fists and then ruminates on his bloody past.

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The other actors are quite capable in their roles, but Jack Willis should watch against being typecast as a fast-talking bad guy with the Jack Nicholson sneer. Rebecca Tilney, as Phil's young wife, Susie, has some acting limitations to overcome but seemed to grow more confident as the evening wore on. And American Repertory Theatre regular Candy Buckley uses her acid-tongued delivery effectively as Susie's older and more cynical friend, Janice. The set design by Loren Sherman deserves particular notice f or capturing the California vernacular architecture.

Because of Rabe's considerable reputation (he wrote "Hurlyburly" which ran on Broadway in 1984 with William Hurt, Christopher Walken, and Sigourney Weaver), and the basic strength of his writing, "Those the River Keeps" is certain to wend its way to New York before long. It's an interesting, if not thoroughly engrossing, piece of theater.

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