In Denis Johnson’s play “Soul of a Whore,” a man walks into a Texas Greyhound station singing the old prison folk song “Midnight Special.” His name is HT — for “Hostage Taker” — and he is just one of the “usual recidivists in transit” who inhabit this desolate depot. The place is strewn with overflowing ashtrays, the obligatory Coke machine in the corner. A stripper argues with someone on the pay phone, and a man who may or not be a faith healer encounters a recent parolee carrying a gigantic cross. Buses come and go, but no one leaves.
Johnson, who won the 2007 National Book Award for his novel “Tree of Smoke,” wrote the two plays in this collection, “Soul’’ and “Purvis,’’ while a playwright in residence at the Campo Santo Theater Company in San Francisco. Both are written in blank verse — surprisingly successfully, at least in “Soul’’ — and deal with dark worlds of criminals and cops, crime and punishment, but they diverge when it comes to virtuosity.
“Soul’’ inhabits a world of hookers and hoodlums and murderers and executioners. The tale is both hallucinatory and immediate, hilarious and horrifying. It moves from the god-
forsaken way station to a hospital ward to an execution chamber, where one Bess Cassandra is awaiting her death for “vehicular infanticide.” Along the way, it asks questions about the death penalty, the justice system, Christianity, and morality. The shaman, named William Jennings Bryan Jenks (BJ for short), admits at one point that there is a fine line between a preacher and a pimp.
These drifters and derelicts are the sort of folks who pop out of the pages of Johnson’s fiction, and in writing for the stage, Johnson creates down-and-out characters with an uncommon attention to language. A man in a coma is described as a “calabash’’ who is “cognizant.’’ HT, who is not exactly someone you’d expect to see in the halls of academe, at times postures like a linguistics professor, as in this bit: “Touché! That’s what you say! You say ‘Touché!’ when someone jabs you with a word.’’
These characters are haunted by demons, both real and symbolic. The play’s penultimate scene explodes with an act of desperate violence, followed by a passionate and ironic speech in defense of capital punishment. Johnson has convincingly created a charismatic collection of characters who, despite the crosses they bear, are achingly honest and sympathetic to the bone. And that makes the final exorcism all the more powerful and raw.
While “Soul” echoes the dark comedy of the early Sam Shepard, “Purvis” is cold, almost clinical. It’s the weaker of the two works, but it opens with a whopper: LBJ sits in the Oval Office in his “starburst undershorts,” playing gin rummy with J. Edgar Hoover (wearing a suit, thank goodness).
The piece tells the story of Melvin Purvis, the G-man who hunted down gangsters John Dillinger and “Pretty Boy” Floyd. The play is told in reverse chronological order, beginning with Hoover gloating over the fate of his former employee, who died of a self-inflicted shot to the head in 1960. The play speculates that Hoover, portrayed here as a devotee of Adolph Hitler, was jealous of Purvis and set out to ruin his reputation.
But as the play moves back in time, the title character fails to come to life. He is written as a sort of ineffectual pawn, rather than heroic figure. His monologues drone on way too long. And the gangsters, while amusing when they elude the Feds, come across as one-note figures.
Johnson, no doubt, is feeling his way around the art of playwriting, and “Purvis” fails to engage on the page, despite that outlandish opener. It lacks the dramatic power of the first play, which has more passion and a whole lot more soul.