''I am a dead man. Terminal. A corpse.'' Fred (Bill Pullman), an oleaginous barkeep with a slicked-back pompadour and a liquor cabinet full of skeletons, says these words in the first few minutes of The Jacksonian, an unnerving drama by Beth Henley (Crimes of the Heart, The Miss Firecracker Contest) running Off Broadway through Dec. 22. But they could apply to just about any of the play's five characters, who haunt the grim interiors of The Jacksonian motel, a dingy hideaway in 1960s Mississippi where they stare dead-eyed at each other and keen over past mistakes.
Ed Harris plays Bill Perch, the establishment's longest-staying resident. A dentist caught in a downward spiral he insists is simply a cyclical ''lull,'' the abusive Perch has been banished from his home by his borderline psychotic wife (Amy Madigan). She comes to visit occasionally, along with their homely and emotionally detuned daughter, Rosy (Juliet Brett), whom they inadvisably leave in the care of the lecherous Fred and his ditzy companion and fellow motel employee Eva (Glenne Headly). Talk of gas-chamber executions and the fire-bombings of black churches lend the proceedings an ominous atmosphere, and the smell of violence stains the air like ozone. Robert Fall's eerie direction has more than a hint of David Lynch, and not just because Harris occasionally sucks nitrous through a face mask like Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet.
The story skips back and forth through time marked by the disappearance and reappearance of a pathetically stunted Christmas tree in Perch's room and the lack of linearity adds to the sense that these people are specters forever re-enacting the most terrible moments of their past. Eventually, Perch's attempts to render himself insensate with a variety of dental anesthetics, huffing chloroform and swigging tinctures, bring him closer and closer to rock bottom. But it's not just misery porn. There's a healthy vein of black humor running throughout which turns Henley's Southern Gothic soap opera into an even more surreal experience. The acting is uniformly impressive, especially Harris' turn as the dentist who can't drill out his own moral decay. Instead, he seems to rot from the inside like a dead tooth. B+