I told myself it was gonna be a while before I was able to shake the picture of a carrot-topped Howard Shalwitz gyrating in a slinky, sweat-stained red satin dress outta my head. And I still think that was a reasonable thought—but I hadn’t reckoned on Nancy Robinette hitching up her bathrobe and starting to hump the right front corner of the refrigerator. That’s right: Woolly Mammoth’s back, and with the world premiere of Ian Cohen’s brashly Brooklynite, enthusiastically Oedipal comedy Lenny & Lou, it’s kicking off its 25th-anniversary season with—sorry, can’t resist—a bang.
Shalwitz, Woolly’s co-founder and artistic director, takes to the stage for the first time since 2001’s Rocket to the Moon as Lenny, a ne’er-do-well sex addict and no-talent guitarist whose impatience with and guilty neglect of his Alzheimer’s-stricken ma (Robinette) is eclipsed only by his resentment for (and exploitation of) his mensch of a younger brother. That would be Michael Russotto’s Lou, an accountant and sexual martyr who’s been dutifully tending to the querulous old bat while Lenny pursues his patently absurd musical ambitions. One unfortunate night, though, the roles are reversed, with predictably disastrous results: When the lights come up, a panicky Lenny is explaining to a boggled Lou how his bungled attempt to handle their mom’s 3 a.m. call demanding the immediate delivery of bananas (paging Dr. Freud!) has ended in an enraged Adolf Eichmann impersonation and the possibility of the old lady’s untimely demise. Anyone who’s ever seen Shalwitz’s finely calibrated knack for the neurotic spiral will have a pretty good idea how hilarious the first 10 minutes of Lenny & Lou is.
The good news is that Woolly’s world-premiere production is very rarely any less hysterical. A visit to confirm Mom’s continued respiration results in what can only be summarized as a dysfunctional-family trifecta: Russotto’s long-suffering Lou winds up offing one relative, having what’s apparently some fairly acrobatic sex with another, and learning from yet a third that his one long-ago true love was hardly the blushing flower he believed her to be—all on the way to a personal epiphany that’ll deep-six what little domestic tranquility remains among the family Feinstein. Cohen mines the specifics of one improbably fucked-up Sheepshead Bay clan for universalities that we can all appreciate, even if our own brothers and sisters practice a more garden-variety twistedness: Sibling resentment, intergenerational manipulation, and the terrible reality of parental sexuality are just some of what makes the Feinstein brothers’ home front such a perilous free-fire zone.
Jennifer Mendenhall trades her natively crisp diction for the broad flatnesses of Brooklyn, turning in a deliciously homicidal performance as Lenny’s jealous, gym-toned sugar mama—a woman whose rage at her husband’s halfassery somehow fuels her voracious sexual appetite for him. And no, I’m not guessing: An angrily athletic Act 1 sequence makes for another transgressively comic installment in Woolly’s ever-expanding tradition of blunt onstage excursions into pathological carnality.
Russotto delivers what’s almost certainly the most committed and convincing performance I’ve ever seen him give; his Lou’s as real and desperate, under the outrageousness, as any Tennessee Williams heroine—and almost as hopeless. And Robinette, going balls to the wall in her two relatively short stretches onstage, finds both the exasperated humor and the exhausted pathos in a character who’s lost her grip but still has her humanity—not to mention a nagging case of the itch.
Lenny & Lou slackens to a simmer in an unnecessarily protracted bit involving an inconveniently persistent hospice worker—a dubiously effective Erika Rose as an underwritten “outsider” character, whose take on American standards of family loyalty is apparently meant to provide a bit of a moral. But otherwise Cohen and director Tom Prewitt, who’s got de Sade’s taste for confrontational kinkiness and Feydeau’s own instinct for timing, keep the comedy boiling madly right up to the finale, in which all the insanity recedes to leave two Feinsteins thinking bleakly about the dynamic they’ve always lived by—and how they’ll ever manage from here on out. The last sound as the lights go down on Lenny & Lou isn’t raucous laughter, but a ringing silence; it’s the signal that Cohen’s crazed clan and Woolly’s wild audience have both sobered up enough to recognize that family insanity, however impossible and individually maddening it may seem, is one thing we can all pretty much count on. CP