(Ben Brantley’s article appeared in The New York times, 8/28; Clockwise from top left: Bill Pullman, Carol Kane, Amy Madigan, Juliet Brett and Ed Harris in “The Jacksonian;” via Pam Green.)
This streamed reading of Beth Henley’s slice of Southern noir offers scorching portraits of bad faith from Ed Harris, Amy Madigan and Bill Pullman.
Fred Weber, a proud son of Mississippi and one very scary bartender, is said to have astoundingly acute peripheral vision. Watching the immensely enjoyable (and equally disturbing) reading of Beth Henley’s “The Jacksonian,” which streamed live on Thursday night as part of the New Group Off Stage series, you don’t doubt that Fred — played by a priceless Bill Pullman — can detect whatever’s beside him, behind him or above him.
It’s a gaze that penetrates straight through the screen that separates you from this human reptile. When his eyes narrow, but never quite close, into razor slits, Fred gives the impression that he’s also looking through all the kinks and corners of his own twisted interior.
Does he like what he sees? Surely not. But he can live with it. And though he lies with cavalier smoothness, he is probably the most honest person you’ll meet in the shabby hotel that gives its name to this cockeyed murder mystery, a twisty study of the discontents of living in the racist South in 1964.
When I first saw “The Jacksonian” in its New York premiere in 2013, one of the great, spooky treats of Robert Falls’s interpretation was watching Pullman — an actor I had long admired for his scrupulous portraits of conflicted Edward Albee characters — cross over to the dark side. And I am happy to report that seven years later, confined to an isolating box on a split screen, he is, if anything, even more compellingly creepy.
As for his starry, first-rate fellow cast members — Ed Harris, Amy Madigan and Juliet Brett, who all originated their parts, and Carol Kane, who is reading the role created by the wonderful Glenne Headly, who died in 2017 — they too are frighteningly vital. Each offers a testament to the notion that being trapped in a certain place at a certain moment in history can cause even the freshest soul to rot. They may have scripts in front of them, but they’re not just reading; they’re being, in ways that can feel too close for comfort.