Hal (Danny McWilliams
) is a homeless man who has a rather, shall we say, “unique” story to tell: On the night of March 7, 1983 (In case the audience misses the date the first time, fear not: We get to hear it again and again throughout the play…), he was abducted by space creatures and kept captive for 24 hours. Known by some in the neighborhood as “the alien guy”, and proclaiming himself to be “the first human to travel faster than the speed of light”, Hal has a cardboard cottage industry of sorts: Surrounded by crude homemade signs marked with such declarations as “The End Is Near! (Ask Me How!)”, he trades food for a look at his feet, which are supposedly scarred from the aliens’ electric rods. Among the collection of boxes that form Hal’s makeshift home, he hides his prized possession: the titular atomic ray gun that he managed to wrestle from one of the alien guards. A compassionate but no-nonsense store owner Joanne (Alex Taylor
) allows Hal to camp in front of her shop as long as he doesn’t disrupt her business. Joanne is quite kind to her rambling “tenant”, tolerating his outer space anecdotes and concurrent conspiracy theories while gently attempting to bring him– pardon the expression– “back down to earth” as much as she can. In one scene, Hal declares, “I know that no one is within earshot, but…” before going into his abduction story yet again. That’s a telling line, because it doesn’t matter to this weathered soul whether or not Joanne or anyone else ever hears his story, much less buys it. Hal stands by every word of it, and damned be the person who doesn’t believe him.
Hal’s agenda gets disrupted by the arrival of a blonde twenty-something named Val (April Leonhard
), who was just in a traumatizing accident– with the gash on the head to prove it. She tells her story, and it’s remarkably similar to Hal’s supernatural saga. Is Val another potential inductee into the secret society of those who’ve been abducted by aliens? Is she even real at all? A haunting revelation slowly creeps up upon the audience, and then finally upon Hal– leading to an spontaneous combustion of suppressed emotional torture. Thanks to Rushing’s well-crafted script and Baits’ carefully paced direction, reality hits the characters and the audience with the impact of an asteroid.
As Joanne, Alex Taylor is engaging as the play’s altruistic exemplar of reason and reality. As the mysterious Val, April Leonhard (who evokes a young Diana Scarwid) makes a striking presence. Intentionally or not, her starkly cool beauty and persona seem almost, well… otherworldly. But Hal and His Atomic Ray Gun
is Danny McWilliams’ show all the way. Any actor can dress up in tattered and torn clothes and mess up their hair, but there’s more than the costume that makes McWilliams’ Hal so fascinating to watch. While often hilarious, he is at times pitiable and occasionally harrowing. His wild, always wide-open eyes seem impervious to reason or reality. The intimate space of the Manhattan Repertory Theatre serves the cast– and the play in general– very well. The close view of the stage seizes tiny facial and emotional nuances that would normally only be captured by high definition video.
Hal and His Atomic Ray Gun
is proof that expert writing, direction, and acting can make a lasting mark on the stage, regardless of the length of the piece. This playwright has a story to tell… but unlike his main character Hal, Rushing’s play requires no suspension of disbelief. You WILL believe.