When no one in the audience laughs at a comedy, even its most lighthearted jokes can take a dark turn.
And when those gags are dark to begin with, the whole affair can sink further still.
At a recent staging of Pterodactyls, the relative silence of the tiny crowd turned the play into an ominous thing — a living-nightmare sitcom with no laugh track, no commercial breaks.
Jessamine Stone, the first woman ever to direct a Plaeides Productions play, boldly tackles this unwieldy piece of theater. And to her credit, she and her cast throw themselves thoroughly at the difficult script.
Likewise, every technical demand is met.
But striking the right comedic feeling in a play that riffs on incest, AIDS and homosexuality could stymie even the most seasoned director. And Pterodactyls is Stone’s directorial debut.
Nicky Silver’s script essentially revisits the conventions of Tennessee Williams’ “memory play” idea (think The Glass Menagerie). It also cribs the kidney-punching deconstructionist sensibilities of absurdist-satirist Christopher Durang (The Marriage of Bette and Boo).
Todd (a powerful Lars Clark) is the disillusioned brother who returns home after being diagnosed with AIDS. He begins the play with a short history of the world, starting with the age of dinosaurs; however, his narration grows increasingly muddled as he approaches the present day. Todd is flanked by his socialite mother, Grace (the remarkably versatile Bettina Freese), and his distant, workaholic father, Arthur (Mike VanArthur, in his Plaeides debut).
Rounding out the characters are Todd’s forgetful hypochondriac sister Emma (rendered deftly by Meagan Schearer) and her effeminate fiance Tommy (a consistently funny Jascha Ephraim), who takes over the job of the maid to try to win the family’s approval.
And so Tommy and Emma scheme, Arthur and Grace try unsuccessfully to connect with their son, and Todd himself increasingly obsesses over the dinosaur skeleton he’s found in his backyard.
Sounds lighthearted. Except then the characters suddenly begin sharing certain taboo revelations — about rampant alcoholism, molestation in church, possible incest. Much like in a Durang play, these themes become a running gag of sorts: Emma’s refrains of “Don’t touch me” and Tommy’s one-liners about being raped by priests are presented as punch lines in the increasingly disjointed dialogue.
Add to that Todd’s dramatic insistence that he will not die from his illness, and the viewer is led to a place where laughter arises only from discomfort.
Given such difficult material, the comedy needed to be something close to slapstick; yet apart from Ephraim’s Tommy, that mode is rarely achieved.
The jokes and screams, then, disintegrate into the same shattered mess as Todd’s dinosaur skeleton. By play’s end, the already baffled audience is left holding the bony fragments, and trying to remember how the pieces could have once fit together to make a living, breathing creature.
[Reach A&E reporter Steve Shanafelt at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
Plaeides Productions finishes its run of Pterodactyls at Be Be Theatre (20 Commerce St.) on Friday, April 2 and Saturday, April 3. Shows start at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $10 ($9/advance, $8/students). Info: 275-8606.