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Theatre in Review: Pete Rex (The Dreamscape Theatre/59E59)

Rosie Sowa, Greg Carere. Photo: Hugh Mackey

As Alexander V. Thompson's play begins, Pete and Bo, best bros, are on the couch in Pete's "man-cavey" living room engaged in a spirited round of the video game Madden NFL and doing their level best to ignore the fact that Julie, Pete's ex-girlfriend, is leaving, on this very day, to attend NYU. (The characters are thirty-ish, but college seems to have largely eluded them.) Then Julie arrives, panicked, bearing the news that, once again, dinosaurs are roaming the earth -- at least, they are in New Kensington, Pennsylvania, the setting of Pete Rex. Clearly, Pete and Julie should have thrown out that mysterious giant egg when they found it; it would have meant one less reptile looking to feast on humans. And the Giant Eagle grocery store down the street might still be standing.

This, in an eggshell, is the premise of Pete Rex: Slackers versus dinosaurs, and the latter have the advantage because the former can't manage to focus on the existential threat at hand. For example, in the middle of this crisis, Bo wants to make time with Julie, while Pete keeps tucking into Julie's stash of Zebra Cakes, one of the treats sold under the Little Debbie brand. As Pete munches away, Julie, recalling the ghastly doings outside, says, "I watched one of them carry away a little old lady." "Like...King Kong?" Pete asks, not very engaged. "No, not like King Kong, you dick," she snaps. "It was huge...fifty feet long. It grabbed her in its mouth and just took her away."

Such words should cue an escape plan or, at the very least, a panic attack, but this trio can't get organized because, even in the face of Paleozoic peril, they have so many personal issues to iron out. Pete, catching Bo trying to kiss Julie, tosses his best friend through the front door, where he promptly is turned into snack food. Then the egg -- remember the egg? -- that Pete had stashed, weeks earlier, under the couch, cracks open, liberating Nero, a baby Tyrannosaurus Rex whose frankly carnivorous nature is barely disguised by a suave British accent à la Daniel Craig.

Pete Rex is intentionally ridiculous, a mass of B science-fiction movie tropes used to dramatize the plight of Pete, a man-boy -- "Is there such a thing as adult-onset Asperger's?" he wonders about himself -- who can't be roused to action even as the world is seemingly coming to an end. You'd think Pete -- who insists he has a degree in paleontology until Julie witheringly reminds him it is in fact an associate's degree in biology -- would be more alarmed about this threat to life, limb, and Zebra Cakes. Instead, he fawns over his carnivorous houseguest. "I am a huge fan," he gushes to Nero. "You're like the coolest thing that ever lived."

That the premise of Pete Rex is purposely absurd doesn't prevent it from becoming tiresome, whether Nero is chiding Julie for being "species-ist" and indulging in a little ten-cent analysis of Pete, or the characters are sitting down for a game of Trivial Pursuit in which all the questions are about prehistoric life. There's a fatal disconnect with the real world; even in a glorified comedy sketch like this, it's hard to believe that Pete's wanton act of murder would be so quickly forgotten or that the character would waste so much precious time on seemingly trivial matters. At the eleventh hour, Thompson tries to drag in a bevy of serious issues, including the familial and financial pressures that kept Pete from completing college and the town's collapsed economy, but such tactics are simply too little, too late. The finale, in which Pete and Julie struggle to come to some sort of reckoning, worrying not a bit about the carnage around them, is all too typical of a play that is part spoof, part thriller, and part drama -- and unsatisfying on all three counts.

Under Brad Raimondo's direction, Pete Rex careens from one tone to another, leaving it to the cast to handle the plot's neck-snapping emotional turns. That Greg Carere keeps Pete from being a total doofus is a testament to his talent, and Rosie Sowa is surprisingly persuasive as Julie, the only adult in the room, and, most of the time, the play's voice of reason. Facing the biggest challenges is Simon Winheld as Bo and, later, as Nero, running around in the intentionally silly dinosaur costume created by Caitlin Cisek. (It looks like a kid's snuggie, as designed by Maurice Sendak.) The set - also by Cisek - is a solid reflection of Pete's interests, with its ratty couch, Pittsburgh Steelers posters, and a ring of Chewbacca-shaped Christmas lights on the wall. (The designer also supplied some amusing projections in the style of prehistoric cave paintings.) Remy M. Leelike's lighting, and Megan Culley's original music and sound design -- including some storm effects -- are okay.

Pete Rex is one of several shows to come our way lately focusing on the angst of twenty- and thirtysomethings who don't know what they are going to be when they grow up. Because such questions are so mundane, the playwrights must reach for extreme situations and extra-theatrical effects to liven things up. It's not a winning strategy; you run the risk of laying a dinosaur egg. -- David Barbour

(16 February 2018)

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