Posts Tagged ‘nicky silver’

by Nicky Silver
Directed by Milton Zoth
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
November 9, 2013

James Slover, Whit Reichert, Nathan Bush, Penney Kols, Betsy Bowman Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

James Slover, Whit Reichert, Nathan Bush, Penney Kols, Betsy Bowman
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio



Trying to describe Nicky Silver’s play Pterodactyls is a challenge.  It’s a comedy, but also kind of a tragedy. It moves at a rapid-fire pace without giving the audience much time to think, but there’s a lot to think about after it’s over. It’s a about a dysfunctional family, but that description seems simplistic after having seen the play. It also involves dinosaurs, and not just in a metaphorical sense. After seeing the production at St. Louis Actors’ Studio this weekend, I’m still trying to make sense of it in my head, but one thing that isn’t difficult to figure out is the overall quality of the production, which is impressive.

This is a black comedy at its darkest, telling the story of Todd (Nathan Bush) and his self-absorbed upper class family–his outwardly cheerful and inwardly disturbed dad Arthur (Whit Reichert) and materialistic, social climbing alcoholic mom Grace (Penney Kols), and his neurotic and damaged sister Emma (Betsy Bowman). Emma has brought her somewhat clueless and eager-to-please fiance, Tommy (James Slover) home to meet the family, whereupon Tommy almost automatically gets hired by Grace to be the family’s maid, complete with uniform. Then, the curiously aloof Todd suddenly returns after a long absence, setting in motion an increasingly outrageous series of events while Todd determinedly constructs a dinosaur skeleton in the living room and watches his family self-destruct around him. The comedy is sharp and caustic, poking fun at normally serious subjects such as death, suicide, parental neglect and abuse, and AIDS.  The point, according to Todd, is that humans–and particularly his family–are not unlike dinosaurs, who once ruled the world but still eventually became extinct. In this play, the race toward extinction roars ahead at breakneck speed, encouraged with an oddly clinical determination by Todd, whose strongest sense of loyalty seems to be to the skeleton he’s building rather than to the people around him, and the tone takes a sharp turn toward the bleak in the last quarter of the play, as the effects of Todd’s manipulation are realized.

Stylistically, this is absurdist and very fast-moving, with a lot of crazy things happening with little explanation at the time. There’s also a lot of breaking the fourth wall, with cast members talking directly to the audience and commenting on the action and their motivations. The characters themselves have so many issues that it’s difficult to keep track of them, and that adds to both the comedy and the sense of impending doom.  I think director Milton Zoth has managed to get the pacing just right, for the most part, and there are lot of earned laughs and well-managed absurdity.  Sometimes I wish the emotional confrontations were a bit more intense, but for the most part this is ideally pitched for the tone of the piece, and it’s riotously funny in some places and darkly tragic in others, and completely engaging because of the dynamic staging and excellent cast.

The characters, for the most part, are not particularly likable, which is a challenge to the audience and the actors, but the capable performers manage to make them interesting and, at times, fascinating. Todd is something of a single-minded sociopath, who is clearly more interested in his dinosaur bones than in his family, and Bush brings a gleeful verve to the character that makes him fascinating to watch, and his scenes with Reichert, Kols and Bowman in particular are charged with energy.  Kols has the perhaps the biggest challenge in that her character changes the most throughout the play, and she handles the descent from overconfident to world-weary convincingly. As the flighty, childlike Emma, Bowman brings out all the over-the-top wackiness as well as the sympathy for a character who seems to be either rejected or mistreated at every turn and doesn’t quite know how to process it all.  She, Bush and Kols are really the center of the play, and these three are definitely the stand-out performances here.  Reichert also does a good job as the seemingly affable but off-center Arthur, and Slover is fine as the conflicted Tommy.

The setting appears to have an early 90’s vibe, with Emma’s floral print outfits and Grace’s bold-colored dresses with shoulder pads.  The costumes, designed by Teresa Doggett, are well-suited to the characters and Patrick Huber’s set is a suitably well-appointed upper class home, with interesting touches like the large globe that opens up for storing drinks, and the lighting (also designed by Huber) helps to set the tone of the play as it changes from broad, biting comedy to bleak tragedy and even fantasy.

This strikes me as a difficult play to stage.  It’s hilariously funny but dark and challenging at the same time, and it requires precise staging to keep the comedy moving and hold the audience’s attention through the darker moments, and this production certainly succeeds in all those areas.  It’s certainly not an evening of light comedy, but for theatregoers who are looking for something on the darker side to challenge their thinking as well as making them laugh, St. Louis Actor’s Studio’s Pterodactyls is definitely worth seeing.

Nathan Bush Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Nathan Bush
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

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