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Theatre in Review: The Artificial Jungle (Theater Breaking Through Barriers at Theatre Row)

Anthony Michael Lopez, Alyssa H. Chase, David Harrell. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Charles Ludlam's final work is all about lust and homicide in a Lower East Side pet shop. The owner, Chester Nurdiger, is an empty-headed motormouth who is babied by his dotty mother. Chester's wife, Roxanne, whose main activity is making pouty faces, is bored by Chester's mindless jokes, repelled by his noisy, wet kisses, and disgusted by the gritty details of her job, not least of which is handling live worms to feed the merchandise. When Chester hires Zachary Slade, a sexy drifter in leather jackets and tight T-shirts, to help run the store, Roxanne suddenly doesn't feel so trapped in her mediocre existence; soon she and Zach can't keep their hands off each other.

Zach would be perfectly happy if he and Roxanne ran off together, but Roxanne is playing for prizes. She tricks Chester into signing a hundred-thousand-dollar life insurance policy, after which he starts having accidents; he nearly gets electrocuted while hanging the store's new neon sign and narrowly avoids being brained by a thrown brick while rooting around in the basement. Roxanne and Zach are boiling with lust and frustration -- until Roxanne casts a glance at the fish tank filled with piranhas, seeing the solution to their problems. Zach isn't sure about the plan, but, as Roxanne notes, "Nobody ever sent a piranha up the river!"

An uproarious rewrite of Thérèse Raquin by way of The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, The Artificial Jungle always seemed an unlikely bet for revival, built as it was on the unique personalities of Ludlam (the original Chester), Everett Quinton (Zach), Black-Eyed Susan (Roxanne), and Ethyl Eichelberger (Mother Nurdiger). However, the Theater Breaking Through Barriers production provides plenty of hilarity, thanks to Quinton's direction and a cast that knows that the surest route to big laughs involves playing this absurdly steamy melodrama for keeps.

David Harrell's Chester is a big baby in the body of an adult, speaking in an urban whine that sounds like Lou Costello crossed with The Three Stooges' Curly. Whether throwing his voice to convince a customer that the store's parrots are practiced conversationalists or appearing in a leopard-skin outfit and offering his version of Tarzan's yell, it's easy to see how he induces homicidal rage in Roxanne. (He also delivers the play's theme, explaining to the squeamish Roxanne that "every living thing lives off of every other living thing" -- words that she will soon take to heart.) As Roxanne, a road company femme fatale, Alyssa H. Chase approaches every situation with the same pose -- head raised, eyes half closed, lips parted -- as if perpetually auditioning to be Miss January. Her sultry exchanges with Zach ("I didn't get these lips from sucking doorknobs") provide plenty of deadpan fun. Anthony Michael Lopez is an amusing piece of putty in Roxanne's hands, especially in a raucous scene that features Mother Nurdiger tending to Chester while, less than ten feet away, Zach and Roxanne are carrying on like a pair of rabbits. Anita Hollander, as Mother Nurdiger, provides one of the evening's comic highlights when, discovering Zach and Roxanne's perfidy, she has a stroke, an elaborately choreographed sequence boosted by strobe lighting; unable to move, except for her eyes and a couple of facial muscles, she mugs her way through the climactic scene, making faces far more expressive than words.

Quinton, who knows this property better than anyone alive, orchestrates the action with gusto, beginning with the doom-laden musical introduction and the shock appearances of the dead Chester to torment the guilt-ridden Zach. The director handles these high-camp proceedings with total deadpan assurance, keeping his cast from signaling to the audience that they know they're in a comedy. He also gets solid contributions from his designers. Bert Scott's pet shop interior is painted with a jungle motif; his lighting adds a series of palm tree patterns on the scenery. Courtney E. Butt's costumes continue the theme in Chester's Hawaiian shirts and the floral print dresses worn by Roxanne and Mother Nurdiger. (Roxanne's idea of a mourning outfit features a black leather miniskirt and clingy top in matching black.) Julian Evans' sound design includes bursts of movie music contrasted with various animal sounds and the cuckoo clock that provides macabre comic punctuation to several scenes. Nearly upstaging the human cast is the gaggle of piranhas that, in Vandy Wood's puppet design, earn laugh after laugh. At feeding time, Roxanne picks up a dinosaur-sized slice of meat and drops it in the tank; the piranhas go at it, reducing it to a piece of bone deposited on the shop floor.

Although Ludlam's masterpiece, The Mystery of Irma Vep, has become a popular repertory item, this production raises the possibility that other of his properties may be ripe for revival. Certainly, Quinton's participation is key here, but he is also lucky to have a cast that is willing, as Roxanne might say, to ride this train to the end of the line. They know how to turn artifice into rollicking laughter. -- David Barbour

(9 June 2017)

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