Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Stephen Peirick wrote and workshopped Monsters at Stray Dog Theatre, and now Artistic Director Gary F. Bell is staging this dark comedy with the always splendid Sarajane Alverson as Andi, a beautician of marginal gifts. She's saddled with a husband and brother-in-law in desperate need of cash, a sister who's out on parole, and a life that still takes some getting used to.
Kevin O'Brien does an excellent turn as the brother-in-law, an adult-but-youthful dim bulb. I believe the standard descriptor for Jeremy (Mr. O'Brien) and for Davis (his brother, played by Jeremy Goldmeier) is "knuckleheads." They've inherited their father's rundown diner, and have found a quick and easy way of saving the business: by earning money in a "murder-for-hire" scheme.
Enter the not-quite-quirky but always exceptional Michael A. Wells as Carl. There is no standard descriptor for Mr. Wells, he's just one of those actors who consistently manages to reveal the world to be quite mad, or maybe it's the other way around. Carl is bound and gagged for about two-thirds of the show, but he's off stage for a good half hour or so. After that, what he has to say when he's freed is quite a shock.
It would be easy to say things gradually spiral out of control but, like many of our lives, things in this family already seem totally out of control. Andi's got a big secret of her own, before she even stumbles upon Jeremy and Carl downstairs; her sister (the sly Eileen Engel) is the one who actually seems like she could run an entire murder-for-hire racket; and the guys are (as advertised) man-children in a family that is totally unprepared for children of any kind. Ms. Engel gets most of the show's funniest lines, but there are still enough to go around.
If I had my druthers, Mr. Goldmeier (as Davis) might be a little more "method," and the lighting perhaps could be a little more stark. On the other hand, those "helpful suggestions" would probably just diminish the powerful impact of the ending, which fits in with a very familiar, but not quite fully defined form of modern comedy. Here, we are almost certainly doomed, but muddling through in the meantime, making the best of it, and letting others laugh at our cherished foibles.
Monsters (and a lot of modern theater, going back to Equus, I suppose) reveals us all as children of television. But this version is oddly elliptical about it all (till the end), adding something Pinteresque to the picture. For here, though our lives are not quite sitcoms, we treat them as if they were. Sooner or later (somehow), we might possibly find a way to escape: smashing through the "fourth wall," through the very TV screen itself, leaving it all behind for some better, brighter spinoff in what we hope will really, finally be reality. Till then, the laugh track in our heads plays over and over, telling us everything's going to be fine, no matter how dark things actually get. And then again, maybe we'll never escape.
But, by the way, that means I'm definitely wrong about Mr. Goldmeier (as Davis). There is no TV on the stage, but the lives of the characters have each become inflected by protective sitcom behaviors to one degree or another (of course, this is also indistinguishable from bad actingbut I've seen all these people in other plays, and they really do fine work). Oscar Wilde agreed that "all the world's a stage," though he added, "but the play is badly cast." This play is well cast and directed by Mr. Bell. It's reality that's assumed a false shape, to ease the pain of defeat, in a world where everything is "supposed" to work out just fine.
Enter Rod Serling.
Through June 24, 2017, at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave. For more information visit www.straydogtheatre.org.
Cast (in order of appearance)