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Angstgiving/The Boys Next Door

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ANGSTGIVING

at Pillar Studio

The table is the size of a fashion-show runway and has been painted to resemble Edvard Munch's painting The Scream. If this were not enough to warn us that this will not be a pleasant Thanksgiving dinner, the guest list confirms it. Jeannie, the hostess, is a former cheerleader gone new-age with a vengeance: her shaved head, cabalistically painted face, and vegetarian diet express her rebellion against the mother whose chief sin seems to have been cooking with refined sugar. Jeannie's daughter Rita lives only for the telephone and her biker boyfriend. Younger daughter Purda is withdrawn to the point of autism. Also present are Jeannie's ex-husband, Dennis, a former high school jock, and his proudly pregnant wife, Lorraine.

Flashbacks inform us that Jeannie left Dennis when his uncontrollable farting, a habit she found rather endearing during their courtship, became repugnant to her and possibly dangerous to their newborn child. Although they've vowed to put these contentions, uh, behind them, Dennis continues to break wind with triumphant glee, and Jeannie has prepared as the main course for this meal not roast turkey but a ten-pound lentil loaf. Its resemblance to a giant turd is noted by all present--in particular by Purda, who has the soul of a poet. She likens the legume-laced entree to "dragon shit . . . picked at by carrion flies."

But what if an audience member stopped finding flatulence jokes funny after fifth grade and has grown equally weary of gags about California life-styles, new-agers, teenage nymphets, nerdy brats, and icky pseudofoods? What if playwright Tracy Landecker's metaphorical language renders the story virtually incoherent (at one point farting seems to be a euphemism for orgasm)? What if the audience member is further disoriented by the characters breaking out of the dinner conversation every few lines to deliver soliloquies from the center of the table--a switch signaled at first by a bell but blurred in act two when even the referee loses track?

Have no fear: if Landecker-the-playwright's flimsy script makes no sense we can still kick back and watch the fireworks that Landecker-the-director supplies in abundance. The members of the Pillar ensemble are an athletic bunch, and the frequent rock-video stagings offer plenty of opportunities for choral movement to rival Paula Abdul's. There are especially spectacular acrobatics from Amy Landecker, whose Purda displays the agility of a break dancer and the vocabulary of a preadolescent Karen Finley, and from Hallie Gordon as Lorraine and Shannon Stepan as Rita in a hair-pulling fight that culminates in Rita doing a backward handspring downstage, her pink cowboy boots all but flying in our faces.

Visual brilliance cannot compensate for the disconnected plot and often unintelligible dialogue, however, and Angstgiving quickly degenerates into a series of inventive, well-executed set pieces. The Pillar ensemble's debut production of Lyn Siefert's Coyote Ugly last winter showed them to be a troupe with promise, but all their decor cannot hide this show's absence of a foundation.

THE BOYS NEXT DOOR

Camelot Production Company
at the Synergy Center

Arnold is a fussbudget who bosses everybody around but sometimes gets confused in the supermarket. Barry fancies himself a pro golfer and even gives lessons, hoping to impress his negligent father. Lucien can't read but is inordinately proud of his library card. And Norman, who works at Dunkin' Donuts and whose favorite expression is "Oh, boy!" wants to invite his shy girlfriend to visit. All in all, a sweet bunch of kids--except that Arnold, Barry, Lucien, and Norman are grown men, and only Jack, the social worker whose task it is to ease them into the outside world, can recognize the pain and injustice they experience.

Playwright Tom Griffin and director Ed Flynn apparently wanted to spare us that pain as well. The Boys Next Door walks a delicate line between demonstrating the dignity and humanity of these crippled men and giving us a guilt-free opportunity to laugh at their geeky antics. And audiences are so accustomed to seeing adult actors play children (in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, for instance) that it's easy to view the characters as children rather than confront the disturbing notion of adults doomed to be forever young. Whatever Griffin, Flynn, the cast, and the audience may have done to shut off their consciences, the result is a production that's played for maximum comic effect (Michael Termine's Arnold is pure Mel Brooks). So despite the characters' sensitive and even tragic moments, the departing audience had no qualms about cheerfully mimicking their speech and mannerisms. After all, if it's only a play and these are only actors playing retards, it's OK to ridicule them--right?

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