Here's why you had better not stop at Joe's Place - a roadside diner and gas station on "an American country highway" - for some comfort food or peel-paint coffee: there's a rather large lady apparently dead on the restroom floor, blocking entry; a truck is on fire in the parking lot; a mysterious assassin is on the loose; a Native American activist ?has been held hostage by a bounty hunter; gunshots are heard on occasion; and there's a tour bus full of women ready to storm the café to use the facilities and have a Danish.
All of the above has happened over the past five hours at Joe's, a rather eventful time to be sure. Joe never appears. A guy named Eddie mans the counter, but he knows nothing about the daily specials. There is a steady stream of weirdos at the door.
Such is the premise "Roadkill," by Karen JP Howes, yet another "World Premiere" play at the Alleyway Theatre and the winner of its 2011 Maxim Mazumdar New Play Competition. The story has gone through several rewrites over the years since its first sketchy appearance as part of Alleyway's annual one-act play series, "Buffalo Quickies."
"Roadkill" is billed as a comedy. If these people are truly out there on the highway, looking for sanctuary or a ham on rye, God help us. OK: genuinely eccentric folk, some deeply troubled or evil, and a sleaze ball or two - but not particularly funny.
The play is aptly titled. The people we meet at Joe's are literally going to be killed there or flattened, or squashed by events unfolding. Some are circumstances of their own making, others come from the road less taken. (Robert Frost gets an unlikely mention in the late going.) There is coincidence, stalk and happenstance in the collection of losers, connivers and innocents. Playwright Howes does skilled work at connecting the dots. The plot thickens, and we learn the why of things.
Time is a factor. The story works in reverse, the final scene is where it all began. It takes some sorting out, and to make sure, Howes provides a little quiz in the program. If you can answer the questions, you paid careful attention. It's cagey, tantalizing writing.
The laudable cast includes some Alleyway regulars - the splendid David C. Mitchell, Stephanie Bax, Adam Yellen, Sean Marciniak, Lisa Vitrano (hatefully oily and toxic as the murderous Addie) and Bonnie Jean Taylor, superb in a trio of portrayals, wise here, pathetic there and absolutely startling as the clingy, needy nutcase, Emmaline. They each have their moments.
Neal Radice, Alleyway's impresario, directs sagely on a diner set of his own design. "Roadkill" sometimes tries too hard to be quirky and is often preposterous, but it has nevertheless evolved nicely from page to stage.
Hopefully, there will be more from the California-based Howes.