‘Gloucester Blue’ A Wicked Dark Comedy (4.5 Stars)

‘Gloucester Blue’ – Written and Directed by Israel Horovitz; Scenic Design by Jenna McFarland Lord; Costume Design by Chelsea Kerl; Lighting Design by Brian J. Lilienthal; Sound Design by David Reiffel. Presented by Gloucester Stage Company at 267 East Main Street, Gloucester, through October 11th.

‘Gloucester Blue’, the latest work by Israel Horovitz now making its New England premiere at Gloucester Stage, is a highly entertaining work, but beware – it might make you a little queasy about hiring someone to do those home improvements that you’ve been planning. Because if you end up with a couple of guys like Stumpy and Latham on the job, it might be your life that gets a makeover. These painters do for the home improvement business what “Glengarry Glen Ross” did for real estate agents, as you’d be far more likely to find a picture of at least one of the protagonists on the wall of the post office rather than Angie’s List.
Stumpy is a contractor who has scored a nice assignment, renovating an old factory in Gloucester into a loft for an upscale young couple, but that’s not all he’s scored – he’s having a torrid affair with the wife. But it’s not his questionable decision-making in sleeping with his employer that will be his undoing, it’s his lousy hiring practices. In order to complete the job on time, Stumpy brings on a “friend of a friend” to help him out, and we soon learn that there’s a reason why skilled painter Latham was so available for hire.

The play opens with the entire floor of the stage covered in drop cloths as the men plaster and prime the ceiling and walls, and one of the things they banter about is their choice for background noise while working. Latham, in his fifties, is an Aerosmith fan, while the 40-ish Stumpy, the brighter of the two bulbs, (allegedly) listens to NPR. Latham tells Stumpy that “NPR brings me down. I’ve got enough problems of my own…NPR can make ice cream sound depressing.” But the lighthearted kibitzing stops when the wife, Lexi, appears with color samples for the walls. She is not only beautiful, but moneyed and well-educated, which pushes all of the wrong buttons for Latham. He begins to gently spar with her as he sizes her up as one of the privileged, and she’s all too happy to engage, particularly since her intellect allows her to maintain an air of superiority.

But the heat gets turned way up when he realizes that she is the daughter of the judge who sent him away to jail, and that’s when this comedy begins to darken. It’s also where the play stops being about class warfare and more about what happens when Latham’s true character begins to emerge. The other characters may have a few morality issues, but compared to Latham, they’re choirboys. After Stumpy makes an unscheduled disappearance from the job, Latham rather brilliantly flips the master/servant roles on the guilt-ridden couple with a string of half-truths, and manipulates the couple to do his bidding. This is in no way a manifestation of the working class getting one over on the upper crust; its more a portrayal of a skilled criminal – armed only with street smarts against the Harvard-educated couple – plying his trade on some unsuspecting marks.

This is a very good comic performance by Robert Walsh (also Gloucester Stage’s Artistic Director), but what really sets it apart is the way he unleashes his rage – usually on the heels of a joke – whenever he’s even remotely challenged. Esme Allen is terrific as Lexi, the quintessential one-percenter, as she maintains the clearly drawn class lines even as she’s sleeping with the working class contractor, and we see what she’s really made of at the end of the play. Lewis D. Wheeler is effective as the milquetoast husband, Bradford Ellis IV (better known by his cute little childhood name, “Bummy”), who is easily dominated by his wife and Latham. Francisco Solorzano does a nice job as the conflicted Stumpy.

This well-crafted play is first and foremost a comedy, albeit a very dark one, and despite its sometimes horrific events, leaves us smiling. Its well worth the visit up to Gloucester, and the play has been extended until October 11th, so see it. For more info, go to: