It is Jackson, Miss., 1964, which means that church burnings and lynchings are hardly more than a hooded night-ride away. And yet, here at the creepy Jacksonian Motel on the outskirts of town, bad relationships and even worse people are trolling outlandish white trashiness as if, just maybe, history were not poised to change their world.
Welcome to "The Jacksonian," a small and strange purgatory in which playwright Beth Henley puts her familiar kooky Southern-Gothic characters through a shredder sharpened with a bit of David Lynch's bizarre menace and the American-heartland mythology of a Sam Shepard comic nightmare.
Henley has worked in Los Angeles since her heyday in the '80s, which began with the Pulitzer-winning "Crimes of the Heart." With this 90-minute import from a hit 2012 L.A. production, she makes a bold step into a far darker side of eccentricity.
She does it with a starry cast -- Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Bill Pullman, Glenne Headly -- that obviously loves the play and, thus, keeps us fascinated when the material goes slack and haywire.
Which it does, but not without its own bloody joyousness. Directed with ripe outrageousness and not quite enough clarity by the Goodman Theatre's Robert Falls, the play goes back and forth between May and December and between the depressing bar and the rented motel room (designed with ideal scuzziness by Walt Spangler).
Harris is blissfully serious and ridiculous as the liberal, increasingly deranged, disgraced and hysterically drug-addled dentist. He has moved to the motel while fixing his troubled marriage to his mysteriously disturbed wife -- played with almost unreadable misery by Madigan. (Harris and Madigan are themselves a married couple.) Pullman creates a wonderfully ghoulish villain, the bartender and bigot with the Elvis hair and the taste for teen girls. Meanwhile, Headly -- who has not been onstage here in far too long -- is fearless as the slutty bigot and waitress.
Connecting all the bad grown-ups is the estranged couple's wise waif of a daughter (played with somber innocence by Juliet Brett). We first see her wrapped in a blanket, explaining in poetic foreshadowing that the time is "not Christmas. It's near around before-before Christmas" and "before a time that makes the time of murder."
This is all less upsetting than it clearly wishes to be. As a hunk of gruesome theatricality with a tragic racial subtext, however, it is weird and cheesy fun.
WHAT "The Jacksonian"
WHERE The New Group, 410 W. 42nd St.
INFO $75; 212-239-6200; thenewgroup.org
BOTTOM LINE Small, weird Southern Gothic menace with bold stars