KPBS AIRDATE: March 29, 1995
In the bleak, quirky, hilarious black comedies of Nicky Silver, the grotesque beds down with the absurd. You may be laughing hysterically one minute, and horrifyingly appalled the next. Silver’s skills were amply displayed in the Fritz Theatre’s recent spiky production of “Fat Men in Skirts,” a play that dealt with incest, cannibalism, murder, alienation and other light comic fare. Here comes another one the Fritz should put on its short list: Silver’s acclaimed 1993 anguished comedy “Pterodactyls,” currently getting a delicious West coast premiere at South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa. Here we meet another one of Silver’s outrageously dysfunctional families, deluged in denial.
Todd arrives at home after a five year hiatus. When he tells his family he has AIDS, his mother plans a party, his father wants to play catch, his sister doesn’t remember him and her fiancé falls in love with him. The family disintegrates and dies off, and a sort of ice age sets in, while, symbolically, Todd constructs a huge dinosaur in the living room, from bones he has found in the backyard.
This is a cautionary tale, about our collective past and present. Our denial of AIDS and family foul-ups. Our inability to communicate. Our unwillingness to accept our errors and ourselves. A funny-scary, provocative play, getting a superb airing in Orange County, and every bit worth the trip up there.
Tim Vasen’s direction is filled with humorous, telling, and delectably detailed bits of business, and the whole affair is paced like a cyclone in a snit. Everything coils up at such a feverish rate that when it all unravels, it’s almost a relief, though a brutal and joyless one. The cast is terrific, the sound is subtle but eerie, the set reeks of spotless, antiseptic wealth and emptiness. What could be more entertaining than theater that makes you laugh and think at the same time?
This isn’t just the domain of dramedy. Some musicals also require more than two neurons firing. Stephen Sondheim, for example, can engage your entire grey matter. In a new retrospective by a newly formed group, Outcast Productions presents “Sunday in the Park with Sondheim.” A company of ten, nine singers plus a talented pianist, present an evening of their favorites, with no particular through-line or theme, just songs they each liked, some of which suit their varied voices better than others. There’s a bit of background to each play represented, beginning with the “Invocation and Instructions to the Audience,” from “The Frogs,” which Sondheim wrote while still at Yale in 1974, when fellow-students Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver and Christopher Durang were in the chorus.
Typically, revues are done in evening dress, usually black and white, classy and elegant. Here, the motif is Rummage Sale St. Patrick’s. Less green, more focused direction, more choreography, and more dance talent, would be welcome.
But the focus in this kind of show should be on the songs, and the singing, some of which is really good and some of which is ho-hum. These folks aren’t menacing enough for “West Side Story,” nor sexy enough for “Gypsy”, nor comic enough for “A Funny Thing.” But they can pull off Sonheim’s sarcasm and his sad, pained or wistful songs. Debbie Luce and Marlene Gorelow are especially strong in their solos, and the group is great in bits from “Night Music,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Into the Woods” and “Company.” (MUSIC, UNDER: “Company”)
These talented folks serve to highlight the underlying talent, which is Sondheim, a composer and lyricist who can be too clever for his own good, but when he’s good, he’s incredibly clever.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1995 Patté Productions Inc.