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Review: Mac Wellman’s ‘Bad Penny’ Promises a Boat Ride to Hell

“Excuse me,” the guy on my right said. “It’s not rude for me to suck a lollipop during the show, is it?”

On a cozy patio at the Flea Theater, on a carpet of fake grass under an early evening sky, Mac Wellman’s short play “Bad Penny” was about to begin. With lights strung overhead, the atmosphere was almost picnic-festive.

A lollipop? Perfectly in order. And, as I suspected, the person who inquired turned out to be an actor — part of a cast tucked in among us on the chairs arrayed around the edges of the space, and on blankets and yoga mats in the center.

It’s a much snugger setup than the play had at its premiere 30 years ago as a site-specific work performed at the Lake in Central Park, around Bow Bridge. Mr. Wellman’s stage directions call for one far-off character, on a rock in the Lake, to use a bullhorn, while a 12-person chorus “is hidden amongst the bushes and reeds.”

That’s still the setting of the play, though in Kristan Seemel’s revival — part of the Flea’s current festival of works by Mr. Wellman, the avant-garde playwright who was one of the theater’s founders — we have to use our imaginations to transport ourselves there.

That suspension of disbelief is easy enough to achieve, as long as the unnamed urban oddball characters — like the woman (Emma Orme) who comes to this spot in the park every day, and the man (Joseph Huffman) just passing through with his car’s flat tire — are spewing their agitated monologues at one another.

“Whose idea was this stupid monster of a park anyhow?” the man says. “I could’ve had my tire changed eons ago if not for this insane little blip of enforced rusticity, set down in the howling wilds of the city.”

With a cast of nine, “Bad Penny” feels, for a while, like a strange, oversize park-bench play, minus the park benches — like Edward Albee’s “The Zoo Story” mixed with J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye,” seasoned with superstition and Greek myth, and a chorus chanting forebodingly.

Even with that undercurrent of dread, it’s charming. It’s fun to watch members of the Bats, the Flea’s company of young actors, adjust their performances in response to the outdoor noise, which on a recent night seemed to involve a whole convention of helicopters.

So it’s disappointing that the production, on a set by Jian Jung, is foiled by the design challenges at the climax of the play.

“The Dead Boatman of Bow Bridge is coming,” the chorus has warned. “He is coming to take the thief, take the thief in his boat to hell.”

But when the Boatman (Ryan Wesley Stinnett) appears, with spooky lighting (by Daisy Long) and an ominous thrum (the sound design is by Keenan Hurley), it’s more puzzling than menacing. To go into detail would be a spoiler, but it’s as if he had wandered in not from some underworld but from a different show entirely.

“I say, to hell with your Boatman of Bow Bridge,” the man with the tire says, before the Boatman arrives. “I don’t believe in him.”

Neither, it turns out, do we.

Bad Penny
Through Oct. 7 at the Flea Theater, Manhattan; 212-226-0051, theflea.org. Running time: 45 minutes.

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