After a thrilling start, José Rivera’s new play ‘Massacre’ is dead boring

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A scene from 'Massacre.' (Sandra Coudert. )
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The recent off-Broadway revival of Carrie used a bucket full of blood—literally—in its pivotal scene. But that’s nothing compared to Massacre (Sing to Your Children).

Massacre opens with a tantalizingly menacing image: A grown man stands in the doorway of a basement hideout wearing a bunny mask, drenched in blood. As loud music blares, a half dozen more masked people descend the stairs, carrying a variety of crude weapons and similarly bloody. These seven friends, we soon learn, have just murdered a tyrant named Joe who’s been ruining their lives.

It’s unclear exactly who Joe is to the residents of this small New England town: an iron-fisted mayor, a charismatic tycoon, a ruthless gangster, or the devil himself. Whoever he is, Joe (whom the seven more often call “Little Balls”) has tortured the locals, murdering and raping and kidnapping at will, demanding obedience from the townsfolk who hang his portrait over their doors, and wreaking horrible vengeance on anyone who crosses him. But these seven have had enough, joining forces in “the world’s prettiest, most deranged guerrilla army.” The opening minutes of the first act are exciting and manic, giddy with the adrenaline-fueled celebration that follows the bloody frenzy.

But almost immediately, Massacre starts to spin its wheels. The remainder of the first act consists of cryptic, overwritten dialogue, where the murderers reveal, but only very sketchily, their beefs with Joe and their relationships to each other. Meanwhile, they’ve forgotten to go back to Joe’s house to make sure he’s dead—he’s taken a machete to the throat, an ice pick to the scrotum, a pitchfork up the ass, and bled gallons of blood, but somehow nothing is certain—and burn his remains. You can guess what’s coming: At the end of Act I, there’s a knock at the door.

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That’s right, Joe is very much alive, with nary a stain on his white cardigan. He proceeds to address each of the seven would-be murderers, revealing each one’s shameful secrets and explaining why each one’s gripe with Joe was actually his or her own fault. The violent gang’s bravado turns to whimpering self-doubt: Maybe Joe didn’t poison my mother. Maybe Joe didn’t kidnap my son. Maybe this was all a misunderstanding. Maybe we’re the bad guys. A Clockwork Orange turns into Lord of the Flies, as dissent tears the group apart amid a volley of accusations and betrayals.

Playwright José Rivera (Cloud Tectonics, References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot) has won rafts of awards over his decades-long career in the theater, and he’s made his mark in film as well, picking up an Oscar nod for the screenplay of The Motorcycle Diaries. (He’s also penned a movie adaptation of Kerouac’s On the Road, so you know he’s not hung up on things like plot.) But Massacre’s wooden allegory reads like the work of a much younger playwright, with its pompous student-lounge philosophizing and stilted language, its lack of depth and its utterly mechanical pacing. Even in two-and-a-half very long hours, his characters never get developed enough for anyone to care about them—although Brendan Averett brings a glimmer of humanity to Hector, a gay restaurateur, and Jojo Gonzalez shows some complexity as Panama, the group’s ringleader—so when each one is reduced to tears by Joe’s emotional manipulation, it falls flat. (The fact that six actors basically have to stand around looking vaguely uneasy while they patiently wait their turn to be eviscerated doesn’t help matters.) As Joe, Anatol Yusef is the strongest performer on stage, presenting an appealing combination of abuse and seduction, cruelty and humor. But he’s shooting fish in a barrel; these killers crumble almost instantly.

Massacre was staged in 2007 at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, but the play has been reworked enough that this off-Broadway production is being billed as the “premiere” of a “new play.” Why now? Perhaps Rivera is trying to stir up some buzz around a television adaptation of Massacre called Mayhem, for which he’s written an HBO pilot. But if Mayhem is anything like Massacre, you’ll be reaching for the remote after those very impressive first five minutes.

Massacre is showing at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, 224 Waverly Place. Tickets are $55. Call 212-279-4200.