KPBS AIRDATE: June 18, 1997
If your dramatic taste runs to the very darkly comic and the grotesquely absurd, this is a great week to go to the theatre. If that’s not your cup of bile, wait till next week, when “Beauty and the Beast” settles in.
Otherwise, you might have some fun with “The Deadly Game” and “The Food Chain.” Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Nicky Silver aren’t exactly two peas in a pod. But the mid-century Swiss writer and the post-modern New Yorker both see the world as a pretty macabre kind of place, peopled by a cast of strange characters.
Up in Solana Beach, North Coast Repertory Theatre is presenting an adaptation of one of Dürrenmatt’s ‘potboiler novels,’ as he himself referred to them. “The Deadly Game” was written in 1956, the same year as Dürrenmatt’s most famous play, “The Visit.” It’s nowhere near as searing. James Yaffe’s dramatic version recreates the ghostly court scene and underscores the Swiss writer’s obsession with power, responsibility and guilt. But for something billed as a suspense drama, there’s a lot less suspense than I personally would like. But there is a great deal of cracker-jack repartée and mental manipulation. Four retired old European coots — two former attorneys, a judge and a hangman — play a very dangerous legal-eagle parlor game. On this snowy evening, socked away in an elegant chalet in the Swiss Alps, a hapless American gets caught in the storm, and he lets the games begin. No one, Dürrenmatt is telling us, is guiltless.
The play is disappointing, but the performances are first-rate, especially Michael Moerman, Jerry Phalen and Daniel Mann as the law-men. Doug Reger is really scary as a mute ex-con who serves as bailiff, and Paul Preston, though he seemed a bit uncertain on opening night, is fine as the American, Trapp, who gamely and gullibly falls into one. Marty Burnett’s set is one of his best, a dark, woody, book-lined, pipe-smoking males’ retreat. Director Steve Gallion keeps the pace at an appropriately rapid clip. This play isn’t half as much fun as a clever, switch-back thriller like “Sleuth,” but it has a much darker, more ominous societal undertone.
The underbelly of society, and its collective and individual guilt and responsibility, also loom large in the works of that wild, New York neurotic, Nicky Silver. As in many of his plays, a spate of which have been seen in San Diego in the recent past — “Fat Men in Skirts,” “Raised in Captivity,” “Free Will and Wanton Lust” — characters beg for tolerance, understanding and communication. “The Food Chain” also has the usual dollop of infidelity, confused sexuality, eating disorders, a monstrous mother, a dysfunctional son.
Written in three days in 1994, the piece reads and plays like a fever dream. It ran for a year off-Broadway, and the tiny, local Alien Stage Project scored big with the West coast premiere. Directed by Michael Hemmingson, this production proceeds in fits and spurts. The language is as intricate as the characters’ interconnections. Sometimes the actors trip over the quickSilver rhythms. The playwright frequently juxtaposes the pathetic and the hilarious; you don’t know whether to laugh or choke or pity or scorn, or all of the above — all at once.
Everyone here is obsessed: with eating, with not eating, with the super-hunk Serge, with the silent artiste, Ford. Lisa Pedace is neurosis personified, taking off her hair clips to weigh herself for the fourth time in two minutes. She’s perfectly Silver-tongued, manic and hyperverbal. Her ultimate foil is Gerard Maxwell as the self-deprecating, face-stuffing blimp, Otto, he that not even a mother could love. All the performances are good, though it’s hard not to go over the top with these over-inflated characters. The play isn’t Silver’s best, the production could use some tightening, but the stomach-churning laughs are there.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.