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Theatre Review by Howard Miller - December 4, 2016

Bobby Moreno and Lindsay Rico
Photo by Heather Phelps-Lipton

If President-elect Trump is still interested in "draining the swamp," he might want to start with that particular part of the Florida Everglades that is the setting for Hilary Bettis's gutpunch-powerful but creepy-sad Alligator, opening today at A.R.T./New York Theatres.

Any play that includes someone in charge of blood effects (Samantha Shoffner), a fight director (UnkleDave's Fight-House), and a "splash zone" is either going to be crazy funny or crazy disturbing. And while there are some surrealistically funny moments, Alligator mostly falls into the latter category. It tells the tale of a group of deeply troubled high school and post-high school teens trying to scrape by with precious little guidance. Not all of them will make it.

Emerald (Lindsay Rico) and Ty (Dakota Grandados) are twins, orphaned and left to their own devices when their parents were killed in an automobile accident (their car was found, but not their bodies, which were assumed to have been eaten or otherwise absorbed into the swamp). The twins' only means of supporting themselves is through the one skill they have, wrestling alligators for whatever tourists happen to show up.

As the play opens, it turns out that we in the audience are those tourists. Ty begins his carny spiel: "Are you ready to be amazed? I said are ya ready? I wanna hear ya loud as a pig in a slaughterhouse! You gotta scream so loud, every single ‘gater in the swamp can hear ya!" This is not rhetorical. We are meant to scream and shout until Ty decides that we are, indeed, ready.

While all of this is going on, Emerald comes out, looking like someone about to perform or be the victim of a voodoo ritual. Her stricken appearance is enough to tell us she is barely clinging on. Later, we find that the only way she can manage to stay afloat is by drinking heavily; she sends Ty out every day to buy or steal the liquor she needs to survive whatever horrors are eating at her. And make no mistake, Alligator is a horror story, though the truly scary stuff is psychological. Even when the monstrous ‘gater Rex (Bobby Moreno) shows up, we know it is a manifestation of the state of mind of the characters.

Emerald and Ty are not the only inhabitants of this particular hellish region of the Sunshine State. There is Ty's best friend Danny (Julian Elijah Martinez), who has gone off to college on a football scholarship. The pair have been as thick as thieves forever and, as we learn, their long-standing bond includes a sexual relationship that Danny, in particular, wraps in denial.

We also spend time with another young couple, Dianne (Lexi Lapp) and Merick (Samuel H. Levine) who talk dreamily but cluelessly about marriage, and a newcomer to the scene, the runaway teenager Lucy (Talene Monahon) who is desperate for attention and affection. There are some parents vaguely in the background, but it does not seem they have much influence over their offspring, on the cusp of young adulthood but completely unprepared for what life has in store for them. All that these young people know is confusion, lies, delusion, and self-destruction.

When Rex the alligator puts in an appearance, it is to take over Ty's role as the barker, egging us on in an increasingly ugly description of what "squealing like a pig" entails. His depiction of the slaughterhouse is sufficiently graphic to put you off eating ham and bacon for a long time to come.

Alligator, a production of New Georges in collaboration with The Sol Project, spares no one in its portrayal of the lives of these teens, who are seemingly lost beyond recovery. It's a lot to take in, but under Elena Araoz's direction, the enterprise could not be in better hands. The cast is uniformly strong and bravely committed to their often dangerously physical roles. Arnulfo Maldonado's set design, Ari Fulton's costumes and Jessica Scott's masks, puppets, and animals (a dying but still-breathing raccoon figures prominently in one scene) are ideally suited, as are Amith Chandrashaker's lighting design and Pornchanok Kanchanabanca's sound design. The entire venture is set to an original, hard-driving music score written and performed live by Daniel Ocanto, Graham Ulicny, and Sean Smith

Through December 18
The Jeffrey & Paula Gural Theatre at the A.R.T./New York Theatres, 502 West 53rd Street
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