The new play “Master of the Crossroads” has range: The tone goes from frenzied to hysterical to off-the-charts bonkers.
Fine, so it is a narrow range. There may be nuances buried deep, but they’re hard to find when you’re being bludgeoned.
Written and directed by Paul Calderon, the show, at Shetler Studios, depicts a harrowing, one-way trip to hell. This is not spoiling anything: When a story begins with its intensity needle as firmly in the red as this one does, there are no options left besides self-combustion.
It all starts when Yolanda (Sarah Kate Jackson) visits Jim-Bo (Obi Abili, memorable in “The Emperor Jones” in 2017) to inform him of a sticky situation: Jim-Bo’s brother, Cornbread (who happens to be Yolanda’s ex-husband), is holding a man captive and threatening to crucify him. Cornbread, an Iraq war veteran like Jim-Bo, has gone off the deep end and kidnapped a Middle Eastern man — although Yolanda is pretty sure he is actually Hispanic. Why nobody is calling 911 is a question you will ask yourself repeatedly during the show.
Yolanda urges Jim-Bo to do something. She vapes agitatedly when she’s not talking a mile a minute — the dense dialogue can be hard to unpack because the action is set in Baton Rouge, La., and the actors go to town with the accent.
Amazingly, Jim-Bo continues to prepare to go to church, as if this were all business as usual.
Next we meet Cornbread (Nixon Cesar), naked except for a shoulder holster and running around his hovel of an apartment. He’s trying to put together a large cross while muffled screams come from offstage.
Then Jim-Bo, who appears to have had a change of heart about church and decided to intervene after all, enters. They discuss the situation, referring to the prisoner by an ethnic slur. (The brothers are African-American, while Yolanda is white; the production features a warning for “racist language,” among other assaults against propriety and coherence.)
A bit later, Jim-Bo must have a change of personality, too, because his behavior goes on to radically transform.
Primitive Grace, Mr. Calderon’s company, has adopted as a guiding principle the Spanish writer Federico García Lorca’s theory of “duende,” in which he identified the sources of artistic inspiration. The first precept of duende was “irrationality,” which Mr. Calderon appears to have interpreted as “making sense is optional.”
Mr. Calderon also explored brutal masculinity in “Divine Horsemen” last year, but that show, faulty as it was, flowed better than the new one. He is more at ease with the previous production’s New York tough-guy vernacular than with the erratic, pseudo-shamanistic fervor of “Crossroads.”
The production ends on yet another abrupt turn, this time into ritualistic violence. Mr. Abili throws himself into the scene with committed fury. Drenched in sweat, he portrays Jim-Bo’s descent into madness as if both actor and character were plunging into a maelstrom. The ferocity is amplified by the venue’s close quarters; you may want to avoid sitting in the first row.
For a minute or two, fascinated by Mr. Abili’s abandon, you may even stop wondering why this is all happening.