By Samuel L. Leiter . . .

A playwright needs to have a lot of confidence if he’s going to give his play a name like Garbageman, the title of Emmy-nominated Keith Huff’s (A Steady Rain) new play at Off Broadway’s Chain Theatre. A fellow reviewer, in fact, sent me an email, after seeing it, warning me that it was “garbage, man.” However, I often find myself appreciating work others already have dismissed, or vice versa. And, as anyone who has ever gone junking knows, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

While “garbage, man” may overstate its rankness, Garbageman won’t win prizes for its artistic fragrance. Its title refers not to one, but to two garbagemen, a kind of Oscar and Felix couple, the crude, bombastic one named Dan Bandana (Kirk Gostkowski), and the milder, less flamboyant one named Buddy Maple (Deven Anderson, artistic director of the Chain). The loudmouthed Dan lives up to his name by always covering his hair in a bandana (the source of a crucial plot point), while the stammering Buddy, following a back injury, needs a walking stick (or two) to get around. 

Deven Anderson and Kirk Gostkowski

Neither of these abject failures has had a happy marriage, but they come to find a deep connection in what they call their “murky” friendship. They’re poorly educated, and some words—like “umbrage”—may be unfamiliar to one or the other, but their dialogue often makes them sound more articulate than seems reasonable under the circumstances.

The play begins in Dan’s cruddy apartment in December 2020, where, suffering from various setbacks, he consoles himself by watching Korean films. “K-Dramas, I find, satisfy my entertainment needs and my emotional needs,” he later declares. Buddy, from whom he’s been estranged, arrives and begs Dan, who keeps a small arsenal, to lend him a gun. Dan’s inquiry into why Buddy needs a weapon—suicide? revenge?—leads to a shaggy dog story that begins promisingly, but goes off in multiple directions. Despite being loaded with quirky twists and turns, it does little else but offer these two toxic losers opportunities for goofy quips, only a handful of which don’t go into the compost heap.  And, aside from some exposition about the work the title memorializes, the play could as easily be about any job requiring physical labor.

Kirk Gostkowski

Huff tries to deepen our interest by giving each man some sort of psychological problem. Dan, who served in the Middle East, but was dishonorably discharged, is subject to what he terms “bersekery,” while Buddy has developed a lingering attachment to—I kid you not—a severed head. Playwright Huff never shows him chatting with the head—a word that operates almost as a thematic leitmotif—the way Tom Hanks does with the volley ball in Cast Away. A lost opportunity perhaps?

As the play slogs along we’re suddenly confronted, with very little foreshadowing, with their involvement in the events of January 6, 2021. If Huff’s point is to demonstrate the kind of macho schmucks that took part in the “insurrection,” he has succeeded masterfully. Garbageman, for all its drawbacks, may deserve a footnote as the first play dealing with that infamous day.

Garbageman has a very long first act and a shorter second one, each set in several locations with scene breaks requiring time-eating furniture shifts covered by pop songs (credit: Larry Lange and Mike Lorello). However, what the press release announces as a running time of 110 minutes, with a 10-minute intermission, turns out to be much longer. My 3:00 p.m. show ended at 5:30 p.m. Given seats more suited for kids than grownups, I felt every extra minute.   

Deven Anderson and Kirk Gostkowski

Gostkowski and Anderson each has his moments, but neither finds a consistently effective comic tone to make Dan and Buddy more than superficially believable, much less likable. Greg Cicchino’s uninventive direction is of little help, favoring a sit-com attack that hammers the lines home within a tiny venue that calls for a drier, more subtle approach. Something similar can be said of the overdone battle royale, staged by Nick Fondulis, that has Buddy and Dan embroiled in farcically awkward mayhem. 

With Garbageman set during the pandemic, it’s inevitable that the men would be wearing masks, even though Covid, oddly, passes no one’s lips. When Buddy shows up at Dan’s place (whose door, unrealistically, lacks a peep hole) he has a mask on, but below his chin. At least we know he’s mask-conscious. Once inside his friend’s filthy pad, however, masking is ignored, which is not how people—or, at least, people like Buddy—acted in December 2020. Obviously, we need to see the actors’ faces, but might not the playwright and director have contrived some excuse to rationalize keeping their faces mask-free?

Richard Hoover and Kis Knekt have contrived an unattractive, low-budget set showing three live TV monitors placed amid gray-painted cardboard boxes piled everywhere. The TVs present notices of how much time has passed between scenes, while also screening K-Drama clips. Michael Abrams’s lighting does what it can to escape detection, and Christina Perry’s costumes help to define their wearers.

I hate to say it, but garbage in, garbage out.

Garbageman.Through April 16 at the Chain Theatre (312 West 36th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues). 

Photos: David Zayas, Jr.