When a one-act play is stretched to two acts, things can get shaky. A case in point is Venom, currently on the boards at the Elm Theatre. But let's start with the good parts: Act 1 and a sterling cast.
The storyline stretches plausibility to the limits. But in a world where absurdity dominates daily headlines, perhaps that makes it relevant.
Everything takes place in two rooms of the Hill Top Motel (a place that would fit in on the old Airline Highway). Scantily clad Meadow (Becca Chapman) runs into the bathroom, locks the door and melts into hysterics. Waylon (Matthew Thompson) enters the other room, which is devoid of furniture, and tries to persuade Meadow to come out of the bathroom.
Meadow and Waylon are celebrating their honeymoon. Waylon wears jockey shorts and brandishes a huge butcher knife. We soon learn it was hidden under their mattress and that Meadow swiped it from the pancake house where the couple had breakfast. She swiped it after she noticed two unsavory characters watching them from a nearby table. Meadow may be paranoid, and her psychiatrist says she's mentally unstable. Or it could be her past catching up with her.
The story gets weirder when Gumdrop (Matt Story) and Rocky (Moses) enter. Rocky is a thuggish detective, and Gumdrop describes himself as a semi-retired drug dealer and criminal informant. They are here to earn $7,000 by taking Meadow back to her past.
Her mother belonged to a religious cult but fled with Meadow before the girl was corrupted or abused. But Meadow's father is a high figure in the cult and he wants his daughter back in the coven.
Much of Act 1 deals with Meadow and Waylon trying to escape injury while Rocky and Gumdrop threaten them. The weirdness of the story and the conviction of the actors carries us through the sadism and profanity (the lingua franca of postmodern drama). Act 2, however, does not add much to the play. The script strains — and so do the actors — to keep the tension mounting. Meadow and Waylon try to escape and the possibility of yet more mysterious agents intervening arises, but the story becomes vague and confusing.
Director Pamela Davis-Noland and the cast kept us in a willing suspension of disbelief despite the unwieldy situation and characters. A tip of the hat to Elm Theatre for producing this world premiere by Chicago playwright Clint Sheffer. — DALT WONK