Beth Henley is trying too hard. Her new play, "The Wake of Jamey Foster," which came to the O'Neill last night, offers her by now familiar brand of comedy laced with tragedy, as exemplified by a gaggle of oddball Mississippians. The strain is beginning to show.
A man whose occupation is that of a "turkey jerker" (he scoops out the innards on an assembly line) is dotty about a virgin who is a dog bather and who, in addition to having escaped several fires - including one in which she was the sole survivor when her parents burned down the house in an attempt to obliterate the family - dreams of pregnancy in which the result is half child and half sheep. The play's heroine, such as she is, has just lost her husband who was kicked in the head by a cow while he was drunk and presumably playing with fat Esmeralda (a blonde paramour, not a cow) in the pasture. Before dying, the man, the Jamey Foster of the title, suffered a stroke in the hospital and, on asking his wife to fetch him the papers, was told to hobble off for them on his good side. For her part, the heroine is sort of gone on a pig farmer who possesses a dog ("more fleas than dog") and whose large portion of pigs has exploded from eating like pigs.
That's just a sampling of characters and events related from one morning to the next as the body of Jamey Foster, in the cheapest pine coffin available, is set down for viewing in the Foster parlor in Canton, Miss. And a section of the audience responded fittingly, I thought, with a versatile expression of laughs, cackles, giggles and expectant grunts that sounded as if they'd been orchestrated for a sitcom whose pilot we may all have been watching.
Susan Kingsley (I'm not sure this performer, so vivid in "Getting Out" several seasons back, is fully aware of what a lovely actress she is) gets top billing as the widow who spends most of the time prowling, both angrily and remorsefully, the upstairs bedroom in Santo Loquasto's comprehensive setting of an old frame house's interior, along with a bit of its exterior. But she's out of sight and out of mind for long stretches as the author chooses to deal equally with the others.
In the evening's strongest and keenest comic performance, Belita Moreno, playing an efficient housewife who is a kind of extension of the fussbudget cousin in Henley's "Crimes of the Heart," also touches us slightly as the child-loving but barren wife of a successful businessman and brother of the late Jamey, a part played in businesslike fashion by Anthony Heald. Just as she reminds us of the earlier play, so does Patricia Richardson as the sluttish but likable sister of the widow, a role hardly distinguishable from that of Meg in "Crimes." Stephen Tobolowsky as the ardent turkey jerker, Holly Hunter as the transfixed dog bather, and Brad Sullivan as the pig farmer who snaps pictures of the neatly dressed corpse ("Smile," he commands before snapping the flash bulb) round out a capable, nicely assorted cast of players who somehow always seem to be at loose ends in this ill-focused evening. The play's highlight, if it deserves that term, comes during the early hours when the girls upstairs are trading stories of their cruelest actions while the men downstairs get increasingly drunk while half-heartedly attempting to play cards.
Henley's fancy for the grotesque is in evidence often, but awkwardly much of the time, as, say, in the scene in which Collard (the sluttish sister) returns from a drunken car ride with the pig farmer to learn she's struck some animal and her front fender is covered with blood and fur. "I never liked solid-colored cars," she states. And such remarks as the turkey jerker's "That green dish detergent really is softer on the hands," or the barren wife's "Excuse me, I've got to go and floss my teeth" aren't even fit for television.
Ulu Grosbard has staged this struggling comedy surrounding a corpse efficiently, but no more, and it is adequately designed, costumed and lighted. But it's time Henley began probing deeper into the Deep South (an assortment of mushmouth stable loonies do not a play make) or else moved farther North for a breath of fresh air.
The dramatic world of Beth Henley is an accident-pitted jungle hemmed in by the privet hedges of domesticity. It's hell in there - and as funny as hell is reputed to be.
Her new play The Wake of Jamey Foster, which came galumphing into the Eugene O'Neill Theater last night, sweetly combines the dottiness of eccentricity with the little ordinariness of life that seems at times immeasurably touching.
Miss Henley knows that the underbelly of tragedy is often the comedy of the commonplace. And she uses this knowledge shrewdly.
Jamey Foster is the second of Miss Henley's plays to be produced on Broadway, and is now running side by side with her Pulitzer prize-winning Crimes of the Heart of last season.
Comparisons may be pointless, but Crimes is the better rounded, neater play. But the new play strikes deeper and with far more passion. Its humors are less well-organized, but in their bizarre fashion more convincing. And Henley remains a playwright you have to love, or abdicate from the human race. It's a plain choice.
Jamey Foster is dead. His head was kicked in by a cow one night when he was boozing in a field with his fat mistress. He chased the herd. As we get to know Foster - his coffined corpse serves as a silent reminder of his absence during most of the play - we realize that he was the type of man who would be killed by a cow rather than a bull.
Not a matador image. Henley does not go in for matadors. That is scarcely her cup of mint julep. She finds her southern comfort in failed heroes and heroic failures.
The Wake of Jamey Foster is a quiet affair. The body has been brought back to his estranged wife, and there are his wife's brother and sister, a stray orphan girl friend of the former, Jamey's brother and his oppressively maternal wife, and Brocker Slade, a sort of friend of the family.
One of Slade's claims to fame is that he had a number of hogs that literally exploded - because, as he explains "they eat like pigs." As the night of the wake itself explodes like one of Slade's hogs, we learn a great deal about Jamey Foster and the nearest and dearest he has left behind.
What is so attractive about Henley's writing is the way in which during its surefooted race through a farcical situation it will unexpectedly stub its toe on a nub of truth.
Take just one moment here. The orphan - a girl victimized by pyromaniacal destiny - has started a fire in the living room. She rushes out appalled at what she has done.
Trying to make amends, she offers her grandmother's garnet brooch to pay for the damage. Her hand goes to her neck, she drops her plate, and food is scattered everywhere.
Cutting through the laughter, she says - with a terrifying orphan pathos - something like: "I've never been in a person's house before." It is a moment that clinks with reality.
Throughout the whole play, as the newly widowed Marshall Foster tries to untangle the skein of her extraordinarily tangled life, battling through her tragi-comedy while the family has fits in the background, Henley makes her case for human survival. Her characters are forever dolefully singing in the rain searching for the temporary relief of a rainbow. That is why they are so funny - and so appealing.
Henley writes very nice plays for actors to act in and, partly as a consequence, very nice plays for directors to direct in. Jamey Foster has been staged by Ulu Grosbard - he also directed the original production last season at the Hartford Stage company - and it does not miss a beat, stress a wrong laugh or milk a poor one.
If Grosbard tiptoes deftly through Henley's tulips, so does the cast. Henley calls for actors who can be frantically sane, capable of doing two impossible things before breakfast every morning. Here she has them.
Susan Kingsley is indomitably battered as the wife who needs to throw a blueberry pie at life - and the amiable crazies around her, from her jealous brother-in-law and his cooingly hen-pecked wife, to her doltish brother and his strange orphan, her carelessly conscience-stricken sister and her unlikely would-be lover, Slade, are all capital.
Along with Kingsley, Anthony Heald, especially Belita Moreno, Stephen Tobolowsky, Holly Hunter, Patricia Richardson, and Brad Sullivan, must take a corporate bouquet. They deserve no less.
So Henley has written another funny-wise play. Yes, the ending isn't perhaps as good as it could have been - but in life endings rarely are. And Henley is oddly concerned with life. So three cheers for her, and her new play!
Beth Henley, one of the most gifted American playwrights to emerge in recent seasons, has made a classic young writer's error in ''The Wake of Jamey Foster,'' her new play at the Eugene O'Neill. What she has done, perhaps not even consciously, is rewrite her first success, ''Crimes of the Heart.'' And, as always in cases like this, the imitation is no substitute for the original. Without the stimulus of fresh inspiration, Miss Henley has coarsened and caricatured the people, humor and feelings that she created with such free-spirited verve the first time around.
Like its predecessor, ''The Wake of Jamey Foster'' is about a batty, small-town Mississippi family drawn together by grief. In the new play, the occasion for the gathering is the death of the title character, an alcoholic dreamer about whom even his widow (Susan Kingsley) had ''mixed emotions.'' One could make parallels between ''Crimes'' and ''Jamey Foster'' for the rest of this year. The three principal female relatives on view often recall the MaGrath sisters of ''Crimes''; the personality traits of the lovesick Ole Miss lawyer in the last play are divided between two men in ''Jamey Foster,'' thus transforming a once three-dimensional character into a pair of stick figures.
But long before these specific similarities become apparent - or even if one hasn't seen ''Crimes'' - it's clear that the writing in ''Jamey Foster'' is desperate. Act I starts off with an excessive barrage of dark gags that sound mechanical and predictable when they should be buoyant and unexpected. In rapid succession, Miss Henley tosses off lines about arson, brain damage, miscarriages, and automobile accidents. Since the lines don't arise from the characters or a dramatic situation, as the jokes about comas and suicide did in ''Crimes,'' Miss Henley's bent for Southern Gothic wit declines into idle show-biz wisecracking. The tone is lowered further still by the repetitive jokes involving bizarre animals (from a killer cow to exploding hogs) and spilled food.
Miss Henley never does get around to establishing her people, plot or themes. Late in Act I, it comes as a shock - and not an intentional one -to learn that Jamey Foster's surviving brother, an ambitious young banker (Anthony Heald), is married to a matronly woman (Belita Moreno) whom one might have previously mistaken for his aunt. Attempts to make Lillian Hellmanesque conflict out of the class differences between the Fosters and their in-laws are dropped as soon as they're raised; the revelations about Jamey's disreputable final months are lobbed like hand-grenades into the confused action only to fizzle out.
If Act I of ''Jamey Foster'' is chaotic, there are still sporadic moments when Miss Henley's real, spontaneous voice peeks through. Most of them involve Pixrose Wilson, an odd young woman who has fled to the Fosters' home from an orphanage and who, as played with a zealot's beatific intensity by Holly Hunter, can get laughs just by telling us how she hitchhikes in order to save her ''bus fare in its entirety.'' These bright spots dim out in Act II, however, when the play, lacking any foundation whatsoever, comes to its inevitable dead halt.
At that point, the characters suddenly start strolling about aimlessly through the moonlit night to make grand but unearned declarations. The sentimental pronouncements and revelations come out of nowhere except the author's last-minute desire to give the play a retroactive point and some makeshift catharses. ''Give me triumph, glory, some exhaltation!,'' announces Miss Kingsley, shortly before she takes to pounding her late husband's pine coffin. ''People get deader and deader each day of this life!,'' cries Mr. Heald, whose character has previously shown no inclination for introspection. An eccentric local pig farmer (Brad Sullivan) also demands exhaltation and glory and, for apparently that reason alone, ends up as Miss Kingsley's new romance.
While no production could save ''Jamey Foster,'' the one at the O'Neill works overtime to accentuate the play's failings. Santo Loquasto's two-level set is uncharacteristically awkward and colorless; it is dwarfed by a brooding gray cyclorama that seems designed to remind us how lost this small comedy looks on a Broadway stage. Ulu Grosbard, a fine stage and film director of edgy dramatic material, is completely out of his element here. He hits every joke in sledgehammer, sitcom fashion; no line is lightly thrown away. The blocking is also clumsy, especially when characters in one room of the Foster house must freeze as the action moves elsewhere.
The casting is generally inadequate; Mr. Heald, a mainstay of the Roundabout Theater's recent revivals of English plays, is particularly misused. Aside from Miss Hunter, the only other exception to the prevailing mediocrity is Miss Kingsley, who was so memorable in ''Getting Out'' Off-Broadway a few seasons ago. Though she's wasted in ''Jamey Foster,'' her emotional directness and tough, down-home humor come through anyway. Indeed, Miss Kingsley's qualities as an actress are exactly those that Miss Henley, at top form, possesses as a writer. These talented women shouldn't let this mishap deter them from starting a fresh collaboration - this time on a genuinely new play.