Story: The well-to-do Duncans of Main Line, Philadelphia seem to live in a TV sitcom from the ‘50s. Arthur is a bank president, his wife Grace spends her days dressed in heels and jewelry on shopping sprees and daughter Emma is a bundle of frazzled nerves from her wide eyes down to her bobby socks. She desperately longs for boyfriend Tommy to pop the question so they can get married and she can start her own idyllic family. Instead, Grace orders Tommy to put on a maid’s uniform and get busy with his new chores, since she’s unimpressed that he’s a waiter.
Then, wouldn’t you know it, Todd turns up. Seems that Todd is Emma’s older brother, but since he’s been gone for five years or so the late-teenish Emma can’t remember who he is. Arthur recognizes him as Buzz, his son who loves baseball, except when Arthur remembers that he’s the one who loved the Philadelphia Phillies when he himself was a kid.
Todd has returned home because he has AIDS and really has nowhere else to go. Grace welcomes Todd in her own tipsy way, Todd puts the moves on Tommy and Arthur shows unhealthy concern for Emma. Then, everything really turns strange when Todd starts constructing a dinosaur in the living room from bones he has found in the yard. This is Todd’s world, and welcome to it.
Highlights: Nicky Silver, an angry young playwright when Pterodactyls first was produced in 1993, has mellowed over time, as witness his scathingly funny bouquet to the dysfunctional American family in his 2012 effort, The Lyons, which Max & Louie Productions presented last summer.
That’s a better written effort than Pterodactyls, but there’s enough meat on the bones, so to speak, of Pterodactyls to enable director Milton Zoth to carve out a well-wrought production by St. Louis Actors’ Studio now being performed at the Gaslight Theater. The abundant laughs in the first act serve as a welcome buffer for the dark, sordid goings-on that follow intermission.
Other Info: Obviously, symbolism is rife in Pterodactyls. Are the Duncans, much like Todd’s construction, headed towards extinction as the prototypical American family of the post-war era? Or maybe worse, since Todd observes that dinosaurs “lived as families, traveling in packs” back in their day. There’s thinly veiled incest, too, both the father-daughter and mother-son varieties, while Todd goes about his promiscuous ways even while infected with AIDS.
Silver mixes raw anger in equal portions with ribald comedy in this satiric send-up of American mores in the ‘80s, with mixed results. Because he fills his story with caricatures more than characters, he increases the challenge for performers to make an audience care about what happens.
That’s where an accomplished cast and a contemplative director can make a difference. Such is the case with this presentation, in which Zoth reins back tendencies, if there are any, by his players to careen out of control and descend into the land of the ludicrous.
Instead, we see measured portrayals that provide amusement without being too ridiculous to enjoy. Whit Reichert, for example, carefully unveils the emptiness in Arthur’s heart toward his wife but especially toward his son, whom he consistently calls by a childhood nickname that Todd despises, indifferent to his son’s protests. His most memorable scene, though, is a one-sentence explosion near the work’s climax where he reveals how deep his anger really is.
Penney Kols contrasts Arthur’s aloofness with Grace’s alcoholic flamboyance. Kols at first presents us with a ditzy dowager who babbles annoyingly, but gradually shows us how fiercely Grace protects the tradition of family even in exaggerated circumstances.
James Slover manages to keep Tommy remotely believable, even dressed in heels and a maid’s skirt, as the over-matched outsider rambles on about each situation being analogous to this or that movie. As Emma, Betsy Bowman captures the essence of the empty-headed teen but also her desperation to have what she believes she’s supposed to have to define her life.
Nathan Bush has the unenviable task of making the self-centered Todd sympathetic or at least bearable. While the character is defiantly obnoxious, Bush’s portrayal of Todd’s cool, steady demeanor in the midst of the emotional chaos around him navigates the play through the rocky shoals created by Silver.
Teresa Doggett’s costumes add to the essence of ‘80s affluence and suitably complement the well-appointed set designed by Patrick Huber, which he also lights with flair. Wendy Renee Greenwood’s props include an impressive dinosaur model kit, Robin Weatherall adds sound design and Cameron Ulrich contributes the convincing fight choreography.
Perhaps you won’t care much for the characters in Pterodactyls, but there’s much to admire in St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s polished presentation.
Company: St. Louis Actors’ Studio
Venue: Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle
Dates: November 14, 15, 16, 17, 21, 22, 23, 24
Tickets: $25-$30; contact 458-2978, 1-800-982-2787 or ticketmaster.com
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb