High Life, by the Canadian Lee MacDougall, begins with two drug addicts and hardened criminals shooting up and planning a foolproof bank robbery. Both Dick, the mastermind, and Bug, just out of jail (nine years for murder), have abundant prison terms in their background, and both their roughhousing and their nasty humor seem at first fairly conventional genre stuff.
But don’t be fooled. In dialogue, action, and character development, MacDougall manages hilarious turns of phrase, surprising plot twists, and startling yet consistent behavior, and keeps us in suspense, amused, amazed, and entertained. Sample of the first: Four hoods in a parked car waiting to start the heist, when one of them thinks he’s spotted an old pal. He is corrected: “That can’t have been Bingo because, for one thing, he’s dead. For another, he never looked that good.” Or Bug, justifying himself: “I meant to cut him. But not in the balls. That was an accident.”
The characters are nicely assorted. Dick (John Bedford Lloyd) is as rational, controlled, and sardonic as befits a ringleader who can think and talk rings around his gang. Bug (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) is a powerfully built man who usually ends up needlessly killing someone but, for all his violence, is no fool and no slouch at verbal zingers while he dreams of breeding horses on his own ranch. Billy (Matthew Mabe), a new gang member, is useful because of his clean-cut looks and way with women. He proves equally good with the sweet talk and the switchblade, as unpredictable in his outbursts as in his bisexuality.
Most remarkable is the “pure criminal,” Donnie, a squawking, squealing queen, infantile but resourceful, funny, and exquisitely creepy. He has only
one maltreated kidney left, appallingly cough-producing lungs that, however, promptly improve when he lights a cigarette, and a scrupulous way of restoring the wallets he steals. He keeps waiting for a kidney transplant, but the hospitals are run by “people who don’t know dick about shit. These medical types – they’re like Baptists.” He will spend his share of the loot on, among other things, buying himself a new set of insides. The actor-playwright David Greenspan makes Donnie the showpiece of a lifetime, but the other three performers are, each in his differently unsavory way, almost equally interesting.
Matters of ambiguous morality, sexuality, and loyalty are explored with acute but unostentatious perspicacity, and the author’s insights into the druggie mentality offer, after all we have been hearing about it, still some fresh details. One feels compelled to believe him, even as one wonders how MacDougall came by his deadly expertise. Walt Spangler’s scenery, with the most modest means, achieves telling results, and Debra Stein’s costumes and Deborah Constantine’s lighting consolidate the atmosphere. Casey Childs, Primary Stages’ artistic director, has staged with directness and artistry. You may not like what you learn from High Life, but you learn a lot, much of it with more relevance to ordinary, orderly lives than you may wish to think.