Sunday, November 17, 2013

PTERODACTYLS • St. Louis Actors' Studio

This 1993 comedy mines the depths of a popular trope -- the dysfunctional family.  But the bite in playwright Nicky Silver's black comedy plunges it into the darkest of places, and it's getting a smart production at St. Louis Actors' Studio.  It starts with a history lesson of sorts presented by Todd Duncan (Nathan Bush).  After laying out an assortment of general misinformation, he talks about the dinosaurs and their extinction.  Then, we get introduced to a new variety of antiques headed for annihilation -- his family.

He has returned to his well-to-do Philadelphia home after five years to inform them that he's contracted AIDS and needs a place to stay.  Todd's sister Emma (Betsy Bowman), plagued with psychosomatic illnesses, is engaged to "Salad City" employee and film geek Tommy (James Slover), after a three week courtship.  When we meet Todd's mother Grace (Penny Kols), she breezes home after shopping in what seems like a whirlwind tour of her own living room.  She maintains the facade of being the matriarch of a relevant family by drinking and planning events.  Her husband Arthur (Whit Reichert), a bank president, appears to have good intentions in his attempt at being a good father, but tends to confuse the memories of his own childhood with that of his childrens'.

Betsy Bowman (Emma Duncan),
James Slover (Tommy McKorckle) and Penny Kols (Grace Duncan).
Photo credit: John Lamb
This completely disconnected family is bound together by the fact that everyone is buried under a mountain of denial.  From Todd's uninhibited promiscuity and refusal to believe he's going to die, and the parents' denial of alcoholism, adultery and the disturbingly excessive affection they inflict on their favorite child, to Emma's repression of her abuse.  Even Tommy, folded into the Duncan family mix, denies the fact that though he's engaged to Emma, he's more interested in her brother.  To complete Silver's metaphor with an exclamation point, once Todd comes home he discovers some dinosaur bones buried in the backyard that he decides to reconstruct in the living room.  You wonder what state of decay this slowly vanishing family will be in by the time Todd's dinosaur art project is complete.

Nathan Bush (Todd Duncan) and Whit Reichert (Arthur Duncan).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Director Milton Zoth strikes a delicate balance, never losing the play's comedic cadence, even while the material grows bleak.  The cast, strong across the board, is able to elicit laughter with sharp dialogue, whether it's a big belly laugh or an uncomfortable chuckle.  Bush serves as an even-keeled center of the family as Todd.  Though not easy to like, he can appear to be perhaps the most well-adjusted, though he's far from it.  Kols ingrains big-haired, shoulder-pad equipped Grace with a frenetic busyness, trying to lose herself in any project she can find to keep from looking at her life too closely, despite a fondness for her compact mirror.  She gives a highly entertaining performance as a woman on the edge of hysteria.  Reichert's Arthur walks in a constant state of oblivion, floating through his days, insisting that his son likes to be called "Buzz".  At times he seems to almost simmer with desperation, especially near the end.

James Slover (Tommy McKorckle), Penny Kols (Grace Duncan)
and Nathan Bush (Todd Duncan).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Bowman portrays the neurotic and forgetful Emma with comic buoyancy.  Even as she becomes deaf when there are things she can't bear to hear, her comedic moments are underpinned by a deep vein of tragedy.  Slover shines as Tommy, Emma's ticket out of the house, who fits right in with the Duncan clan.  His comic timing is heightened by the sincerity that grounds his character, even though he spends most of the time dressed as the family maid -- dainty uniform and all.  Slover and Bowman play well against each other.  Teresa Doggett is responsible for costuming everyone in 1980's  apparel, with Grace's dated dresses and big hair being a standout, with Patrick Huber  providing scenic and lighting design for the family home, with sound design by Robin Weatherall and props design by Wendy Renée Greenwood.

Pterodactyls is a funny, absurd, unflinching look at an unsustainable American relic that's well worth seeing.  Check it out while you can.

Nathan Bush (Todd Duncan).
Photo credit: John Lamb

Written by Nicky Silver
Directed by Milton Zoth
The Gaslight Theater, 358 N. Boyle Ave.
through November 24 | tickets: $30.25 - $35.25
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm

Whit Reichert* (Arthur Duncan), Nathan Bush (Todd Duncan), James Slover (Tommy McKorckle), Penny Kols (Grace Duncan and Betsy Bowman (Emma Duncan).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Costume design by Teresa Doggett; props design by Wendy Renée Greenwood; scenic and lighting design by Patrick Huber; sound design by Robin Weatherall; fight choreography by Cameron Ulrich; stage manager, Amy J. Paige.

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