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I believe it was during the interpretive dance, there at the top of the second act, that I surrendered to Monkeyboy.
Never mind that both the dance and the second act seem decidedly unnecessary. So unapologetically pointless is the plot of the Charter Theatre’s mad fable about an unusually malevolent cockatoo and the various neurotic humans who suffer in his company that even the basics—locale, for instance, and, I dunno, character names—are likely to strike audiences as thoroughly ancillary. A well-made play this boisterous bit of nonsense demonstrably is not. Still, I laughed like a loon.
This was at a Sunday-night performance, too, at which the actors very nearly outnumbered the audience, and during which my deranged cackling grew increasingly solitary as the evening thrashed ever more erratically toward the realm of the ridiculous. Plainly, critical analysis stands no chance of accounting for the appeal of what Charter collaborators Keith Bridges, Chris Stezin, and Richard Washer have devised, so wild stabs at description will have to suffice: In addition to the aforementioned avian (played with hilariously serious attention to psittacine detail by Jim Helein), Monkeyboy features his hypochondriac divorcée owner (“Halitosis can be a sign of a more serious medical condition,” she worries), her eBaying, coffee-swilling, bourgie-lefty best friend (“Stop Bitching—Tart a Revolution,” says the bumper sticker on her Dell, at least as seen from my seat), and the would-be smooth operator who meets them in a D.C. park one dark night. In the direction of these three, Bridges et al. hurl various mixed metaphors, literary asides, and pop-culture references with increasing abandon—pay attention, and you’ll have the chance to delight in a merry round of German-baiting, enjoy snippets of The Tempest, and ruminate upon Paris Hilton and Adrian Zmed. There’s also a psychic with a suspicious accent.
The story—har—concerns the divorcée’s struggle to overcome her husband’s abandonment, the best friend’s struggle to choose between her rich, pedigreed fiancé and the exciting world of online dating, and the smooth operator’s struggle to…well, what he’s struggling to do is anybody’s guess, but it involves a good deal of skulking, along with a trip to the Amazon. It also involves a good many coincidences, chief among them being that Mr. Suave (Ray Ficca) turns out to have had some previous experience with Ms. Lefty (Hope Lambert), the departed husband of Woeful Divorcée (Rachel Bridges), and, of course, the trash-talking bird (“Ann Coulter has a penis!”). He also seems to be familiar with the psychic with the suspicious accent.
Somewhere between that interpretive dance (to the suitably mock-epic strains of Rufus Wainwright’s “Oh What a World”) and the bird’s fourth or fifth ad hominem attack on the punditocracy (“Frank Rich squats to pee!”), Monkeyboy loses some of the momentum that makes its early stretches such nonsensical fun. For a while, in fact, what with the shipboard misunderstanding involving the Cockney skipper with the eye-patch and the Internet-dating misunderstanding involving the sissified proprietor of a jungle resort, an observer might begin to feel that even this anarchic evening has begun to flail a bit.
That observer, however, might well be dismissed as a poop. Monkeyboy seems to be largely an exercise in tomfoolery, an excuse for the authors to have a bit of fun and a performing showcase for the assembled actors—who, it must be said, do in fact perform: gamely, with considerable energy, and without a shred of pretentiousness. That last part is important, especially in an enterprise as supremely unimportant as this one. Come to think of it, it’s probably why I had such a good time.
It’s not pretension, quite, that dulls the comic sparkle of An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf, but there is an unmistakable something. Earnestness? Metaphysical ambition? The Washington Stage Guild’s advance publicity refers, amid a welter of other dubious food metaphors, to a “nourishing message” tucked inside what’s otherwise a phyllo-flaky farce, and I’m guessing that’s the problem.
Michael Hollinger, the Pennsylvania playwright who split sides at the Stage Guild last season with a finely tuned romp about conniving medieval monks, allows this effort to bog down in maudlin midlife musings. It’s July 1961, and in a Paris cafe established for the exclusive use of a stinking-rich American gourmand, an assortment of oddball staffers greet their patron’s impending visit with the kind of nervous fussiness that promises plenty of yuks: An imperious headwaiter (Bill Largess) barks at his put-upon hostess wife (Louise Andrews) about the spots on the china, while an excitable chef (Michael Glenn) worries about what their guest might demand tonight (fricasseed platypus is apparently one of the possibilities) and a clumsy, stammering trainee (Ben Shovlin) tries to stay clear of the swinging doors. (Not so much.)
Then in comes the boss man, and the headwaiter makes an observation—“You look sad tonight….Sort of…existential”—and from the introduction of that fearsome word it’s all downhill.
Not that the cast doesn’t work hard. Conrad Feininger fumes nicely as the dyspeptic expat, who’s apparently been a lively, take-a-bite-out-of-life kinda guy heretofore. (One reason for his sudden melancholy has something to do with the newspaper headline he keeps glancing at, and something to do with the swaggering prose he quotes every time the staff asks about his day; another reason will walk through the door before the night is out.)
There’s a nice physical precision to the production, too, in the snap of a wrist as a wine bottle gets presented or in the satisfying sound of door and nose colliding, and Glenn gets several opportunities to steal scenes with what I’m starting to think is the sharpest comic timing in town. (Notice the apt timing of the entrance with the turkey baster, is all I’m saying.)
But Hollinger apparently wants his farce to say something about what we live for and what we live without, which is rather like wanting Noises Off to read as a poignant commentary on the tragic actorial propensity for marital infidelity. It could happen, I guess, but for heaven’s sake why?CP