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Review: Pterodactyls

Nicky Silver’s 1990s play is staged by Promethean Theatre Company

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Pterodactyls begins with a brief history of dinosaurs, followed by a rushed, selective and entertaining account of what has happened on Earth since they disappeared. We don't know exactly why the dinosaurs died off, but what seems most important here is that their demise was sudden, which sets the stage for an examination of the modern upper-middle-class life of the Duncan family.

  Almost like a TV sitcom set, the family's living room fills the tiny stage at Old Marquer Theater, with stairs leading to a second floor and front and back doors as the only exits. It's a Petri dish to watch family dysfunction hit a tipping point, and the work draws humor and tension from that easily established premise. Director Stephen Eckert effectively directs the madness, as family members often seem to engage in different, barely intersecting conversations when communicating with or confronting one another.

  The Duncan children both have big news. Emotionally vulnerable teenaged daughter Emma (Erin Cessna) pops pills and claims not to remember major personal and family events. She surprises everyone with her new boyfriend Tommy McKorcle (Khiry Armstead), who is homeless. Son Todd (Mark Bryan) has returned after some time away, and he's eager to confront everyone with the revelation that he has AIDS, which raises the specter of extinction.

  If the children are both troubled in some way, it's easy to believe they were groomed for it. Their wildly oblivious mother, Grace (Lara Grice), obsesses about shopping and brand names and guzzles Scotch. When she learns Tommy is homeless, she offers to hire him as the family maid, which becomes an absurd and unwieldy proposition. Father Arthur (James Wright) arrives and is unfazed by others' problems and somewhat disengaged, or at least has suppressed how he feels. He often projects his own interests and memories onto his children.

  The play's familiar domestic roles and flaws can seem cartoonish, but Grice shines, convincingly living in the skin of Grace, at times creepily inviting Todd to play with her hair. Cessna's self-absorbed naivete and Todd's angry outbursts are compelling but generally define those characters. The work is most entertaining when the entire family is onstage, all yelling and barely listening. As the situation devolves, Todd hauls in dinosaur bones he finds in the backyard and reassembles them in the living room. The various types of dysfunction aren't all that uncommon, but the extent of the damage and the way it piles up is. The hyperbole provides humor, but when the work turns serious, it also makes the plot difficult to resolve.

  Nicky Silver's play premiered in 1993, and some of the confrontation about AIDS seems dated, at least in the way its shock value is invoked. Also, as in some sitcoms, it takes some magical thinking to get to the play's conclusion, and that undercuts the urgency that drives the production until that point. It's darkly funny to watch the Duncans spin out of control, even if it doesn't look like survival of the fittest when they finally see the problems before them. Promethean Theatre Company makes the most of Silver's notable but challenging early work.

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