at the Goodman Theatre Studio
Denis O'Hare does the best raccoon around. Only Steve Totland's formidable mongoose (from Just So Stories, at the Lifeline Theatre last season) comes close.
O'Hare's got that great raccoon tick sound, like an overwound egg timer or a squirrel on a wire. He's got the quick gestures and the spastic yawn, the cocked head and the curious eyes. He's got the little shivers; and those moments of pure, surprised absorption in whatever odd thing he happens to have noticed his hands doing.
Come to think of it, except for the ticking, he's got a lot of the same behaviors I find in my brand-new infant son, Emmett. Maybe that's what makes his performance as Bob the raccoon boy in Lloyd's Prayer so charming.
"Maybe" nothing. Definitely. O'Hare's baby-clear, baby-grave, baby-unabashed sense of wonder, combined with his extraordinary physical wit, not only enliven his performance--they go a long way toward saving the whole show.
Which otherwise might have just floated away, lifted on angel wings of cuteness. Written by Kevin Kling and first performed at Louisville's Humana Festival, where all of America's simpiest plays seem to get their start, Lloyd's Prayer is unrelentingly adorable in an implacably zany way.
It's the tale of raccoon boy Bob's encounter with humanity. A feral child, raised by the little masked critters and forced to fend for himself when his raccoon mom meets her asphalt destiny crossing a highway, Bob raids garbage cans until stumbling into a trap set by a thick-witted but heavily armed suburbanite. Fortunately, the suburbanite's love-starved wife decides to adopt Bob. Unfortunately, she goes crazy, the suburbanite dies, and Bob finds himself being exhibited as a freak by Lloyd, a two-bit con artist.
Two-bit though he may be, however, Lloyd realizes that there's big money to be made in religion. So he transforms his freak show into an evangelical crusade, with Bob cast as the poor damned soul who needs your prayers and pledges if he's ever going to slough off his bestial ways and stand in God's light. This pisses God off. The Lord sends an angel, who inhabits the body of a small-town beauty queen, to set things right.
Kling's quirky narrative is very, very funny for about ten minutes; then the scrupulous wackiness of it all becomes overwhelming and tiresome. Like spending your entire weekend with Roger Rabbit. Sure, there are the occasional bright spots--Lloyd's sermon, for instance, likening the soul (or life, or sin, or something) to a meatball that might just roll off your plate. But the overall effect is that of a play that's trying just ever so hard to make itself crazy and lovable and--ooooh, you know--wild.
Before long, too, you find that the pressure to be wild is actually causing the play to fragment. Seemingly important developments--like the love-starved wife's reemergence as a lesbian novelist--get left hanging or used in disappointingly pedestrian ways. Big scenes--like the one where Bob asks a fat, satanic businessman for a job--come out of nowhere, do nothing in particular, and have no discernible effect. By the time we reach Kling's moral punch line of an ending, it seems pasted on. Ad-libbed and kind of puny. The show that started out doing theatrical flips ends up in a failure of wit.
Lloyd's Prayer was developed at Robert Redford's Sundance Institute, where you'd expect it to have gotten a good dramaturgical going-over. But there's too much that hasn't been thought out, that's been left plain sloppy. No one connected with the piece's development seems to have realized that the very wildness of Kling's conception requires a greater rigor, a greater elegance, if it's going to work.
Not to mention a sharper edge. Part of the problem with the play as it appears here, in this Remains Theatre production, is the way director David Petrarca buys into Kling's whimsy when he should be working against it. Unsatisfied with mere fun, Petrarca pushes hard for out-and-out jolly by encouraging his cast to get goofy with their roles. Sometimes it works, as when a solid comedian like David Alan Novak makes a controlled travesty of his turn as a television host or a cigarette-smoking fish. But mostly it just serves to up the cuteness quotient. Will Zahrn's Lloyd, especially, needs a darkness, an honest-to-God genuine meanness that it never gets. Never even tries for.
That's why Denis O'Hare's raccoon is so important. O'Hare takes the one character most susceptible to the Kling/Petrarca sweetness treatment and turns it into a baby. Not a cootchy-coo baby--but one of the real sort, who looks around himself with endless intensity and need; incomprehension, amazement, true innocence, and an animal desire to grab hold. Troubled, and offered completely without irony, O'Hare's performance is at once harsher than anything else onstage and more truly funny. O'Hare gives Kling the qualities he didn't even know he needed. And so makes his show worth seeing.