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Originally published Tuesday, March 22, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Novelist's play "Hellhound" thrives on whip-smart lingo

Corporations and governments tend to cultivate their own vocabularies. And those in-house languages can be as slippery and deliberately...

Seattle Times theater critic

Corporations and governments tend to cultivate their own vocabularies. And those in-house languages can be as slippery and deliberately mystifying as the secret lingo of twins.

Rampant "bureaucra-tese" has been seeping into casual conversation for some time now. And in his play "Hellhound on My Trail," Denis Johnson co-opts it for his own purposes: as a wellspring of theatrical surrealism.

Johnson's droll, whip-smart comedy (now having its Seattle debut at Theater Schmeater) is really three separate one-acts connected by a thin familial cord.

"An Exploration of the Colorado River" starts things off. In this Kafka-esque interview (or is it an interrogation?), a cryptic government higher-up (played with delicious implacability by Rebecca M. Davis) quizzes a Department of Agriculture food inspector, Marigold Cassandra (played in a little fever of squirming anxiety by Kate Czajkowski), about a bizarre scandal.

Next comes "Head Rolling and Rolling," a bantering, cross-scheming encounter between Marigold's seductive, panicky boss Kate Wendell (spot-on Terri Weagant) and a wily federal operative, Jack Toast (a too-tentative Erik Hill).

Finally, in the noir-ish "Hellhound on My Trail," Marigold's loser brother, Mark Cassandra (Roy Stanton) wakes up in a strange motel room with hard drugs and a gun at hand, and a creepy intruder hovering. (That's Salazar, drawn with steely comic potency by Seán Gormley).

Now playing

"Hellhound on My Trail" by Denis Johnson. Thursday-Saturday at Theater Schmeater, 1500 Summit Ave., Seattle. $15/free under 18. (www.ticketwindowonline.com or 206-325-6500.

The first work in a play trilogy about the Cassandra clan," Hellhound" (the title echoes a haunting blues tune by Robert Johnson) delivers the tangy dialogue and popping revelations that also mark Johnson's well-regarded novels ("Fiskadoro") and short story collections ("Jesus' Son").

And by peppering the chatter with references to mall disasters, Colorado River explorer John Wesley Powell, splinter religious cults, sex scandals and office politics, Johnson concocts an American panorama mottled with paranoia, moral contradiction and "complications of the heart."

This was Johnson's first play, and there are limitations of craft here. Each act is designed as a loaded power struggle between two people. Some things are stated too baldly. ("I'm a surrealist!" boasts Jack). And the three episodes heat up to a simmer, rather than an explosion.

But from Rob West's mostly pithy production at Schmeater, it's clear why Johnson is being favorably compared to Sam Shepard — and should be to David Mamet.

Like Shepard, Johnson chips away at the changing ethos of the modern West via a family of misfits who barely function in it. And like Mamet, he co-opts the language of obfuscation and indirection, turning tinny coinage into rich humor.

When a bureaucrat says, "Facts aren't truth" or draws a fine distinction between "compartmentalizing" and "damage control," the queasy-breezy government-speak is funny, familiar and crazy-making.

Schmeater plans to mount the other two works in Johnson's Cassandra Cycle soon: "Shoppers Carried by Escalators into the Flames" (in November 2005) and "Soul of a Whore" (sometime in 2006). And with "Hellhound on My Trail," the company whets your appetite for what's to come.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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