It starts like this:
The following performance may contain some of the following: flashing lights, fog, violence, loud music, drug use, gunshots, profanity, blood, and loud ambient noise.
Well, okay then. Calling itself a "pitch-black psychodrama" in its promotional materials, Tommy Smith's White Hot opened its West Coast debut at West of Lenin a week late due to mysterious "unforeseen circumstances." Smith, the Seattle/New York actor and playwright, was supposed to perform one of the roles in this four-person cast. Instead, the program notes that director Braden Abraham, who is also associate artistic director at Seattle Rep, is playing the part.
But on to the fog, violence, drug use, etc.: It is excellent. The team of people who created the set (Andrea Bryn Bush), sounds (Emily Fassler), lights (Jessica Trundy), and costumes (Stranger Genius Jennifer Zeyl) made something creepy and cool. But that's not what makes the show great. What makes the show great are the script and the stomach-churning performances. Hannah Victoria Franklin, as Sis, plays an over-the-top drug/booze/sex addict, the wild sister of seemingly settled suburban housewife Lil (Kimberley Sustad, also amazing). The show opens with the two of them sitting on a couch, Sis recounting her latest bloody, vomity sexual exploits to a not unfazed, but not exactly shocked, Lil. Lil seems like the sane one for about five minutes, but it rapidly becomes clear that she's unraveling. Stuck in her house all day, terrified of her emotionally abusive husband, she's getting off on Lil's stories even as she tries to disapprove. Their relationship is deeply funny, even though it's painful to watch two wrecks bounce off each other. Franklin is a showstopper, her casual, tossed delivery making the jokes in her lines hit your brain slowly, so you're laughing a beat late. "We came from the same hole. I just turned out yang," she drawls at Lil. When she leaves the house after scoring a bottle of pills, Lil tells her, "Be careful." "I won't," Sis replies, oh-so-matter-of-factly. She won't—it's not her style, and she knows it. She repeatedly talks about trying to fill a void. She's an incredibly self-aware fucked-up person, which is rare and fiercely entertaining. She also deploys her body incredibly, lolling around on couches, moving fluidly, then stalking a little when she's playing games with someone.
That someone she plays games with ends up being Lil's husband, Bri (the role played by Abraham). Bri is an asshole. He is immediately awful, so predatorily abusive to Lil that you want to hit him. Lil is a mess more tightly controlled than her sister, with something really dark swimming under her cutesy, vacant exterior. Bri has convinced her that she's a drug addict and a disaster, that he has to take care of her and tell her what to do for her own good. He's also kind of a doofusy jerk, which lends some humor to their otherwise bleak interactions. When he suggests they go somewhere warm for a while, just to get away, she suggests, "Jamaica?" "We're not going to Jamaica so you can smoke drugs," he spits. The line gets a laugh, but the ensuing conversation, as he drives relentlessly over her every word and reaction until she's completely succumbed to his insane logic, until she's cowering on a park bench in rabbit-eyed fear, is less funny. If it weren't in the program, you wouldn't know that Abraham had only about a week to get this part down. His menace is real, the tense, scary rage of a stupid man who knows somewhere deep down how worthless he is and who's going to fight that—and lose—forever.
Obviously, this is a recipe for disaster, and it's not a particularly unexpected disaster the characters get themselves into. There's a knife fight, a mysterious stranger (Ray Tagavilla, seductive and strange), a black box. We know this can't end well—we knew from the start. But to make stories about awful, broken people watchable, there has to be something to recognize or something to surprise. You'll find both here. There's no intermission, and the sounds and lights startle and seethe as the shitshow unfolds. The audience staggered a bit on the way out. You've been warned.