Ernest Hemmings’ ‘pitch-black comedy’ is an unnerving triumph

Photo: Bill Hughes
Jacob Coakley

Four stars

Tinfoil Haberdashery September 10-12, 8 p.m., $15. Las Vegas Little Theatre,

Tinfoil Haberdashery, a new play by Ernest Hemmings, takes on the vitriol, intolerance and grandiosity that are the lingua franca of our current era—whether online, broadcast or even in person. It delivers an anxiety-provoking drama that straddles the line between horror and revenge fantasy.

The play centers around Chuck (Brandon McClenahan), an online troll who loves to argue for gun rights and armed insurrection, who’s roommates with Kyle (Shane Cullum). When the police call and ask Chuck to come down to the station to answer some questions about his involvement in the murder of two cops at a CiCi’s Pizza (based on last year’s actual Vegas tragedy), his paranoia goes through the roof—validated by the appearance of the threatening Phillips (Joel Wayman).

Wayman is a perfectly persnickety snoop, a poster boy for the bureaucratic banality of evil. His mind games and physical violence toward Chuck and Kyle are genuinely upsetting. Wayman manages the hairpin turns of the character with aplomb, charm and menace. That he might not be what he seems is a given, but—without revealing too much—you may end up rooting for him more than you think.

As Chuck, McClenahan has settled into himself nicely. Without relying on signifiers or overblown dramatics, he presents a vile character genuinely and affectingly. The fact that you end up rooting for him, even feeling sorry for him, is a testament both to the structure of Hemmings’ play and McClenahan’s acting, reaching a very real point of desperate fear. Cullum also delivers great work as Kyle. His dry, acerbic delivery is the perfect foil for McClenahan’s blustery Chuck, and his quiet tenacity allows the character to keep going even as he is heaped with abuse.

Under Hemmings’ direction, the action quickly ramps up from slacker badinage to heart-pounding stress. His staging creates tension around the misdirections and double-binds of the play, and as he coerces his characters into painful situations, the audience follows along, trapped as well.

This is a twisty play. Things are well confused by the end of it—and you’re not sure exactly where your sympathies lie, or even where they should lie. Hemmings’ final message gets delivered with conviction, but what has just happened undermines its effectiveness. As an audience member you’re left unsure of where to stand—unable to enjoy some revenge, unable to reconcile yourself with abhorrent behavior. You’re left in another double-bind, just like the characters in the play, and just as unnerved.

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