Chain Reaction

The City Players of St. Louis nail a tale of loneliness, rejection and humiliation -- and it's a comedy.

Oct 16, 2002 at 4:00 am
Early in Scene 1 the beleaguered heroine of Nicky Silver's ruthlessly amusing The Food Chain boasts that one of her poems is featured in this week's New Yorker -- which is only fitting, because Amanda is herself straight from the pages of that same magazine. She's a New Yorker cartoon figure come to life. Drop-dead gorgeous, certifiably thin, and just now going completely bonkers because her newly-married spouse has been missing for two weeks, Amanda is a caricature of the quintessential pre-9/11 Manhattanite. She's a throwback to that age of innocence when we were allowed to disdain New Yorkers as pretentious, egoistic neurotics.

As Amanda bemoans the lost husband she barely knew, across town Otto is trying to reclaim the boyfriend he never had. Otto used to be slender, but he gave into his cravings. Now a victim of his own self-loathing, he finds solace in living out foolish fantasies while devouring donuts, pretzels and corn chips. You know how a just-untied balloon sputters and gyrates in a series of spastic death throes as it makes its way to the ground? That's Otto -- a balloon in suspenders, about to crash-land.

Rail-thin Amanda and roly-poly Otto are the dysfunctional alpha and omega at the opposite poles of this unlikely, yet oddly endearing, comic assault on loneliness, rejection, humiliation and obsession. In the abstract and on the page, so much about this 1995 Off-Broadway success is easy to dislike -- monologues that drag on for much too long, dialogue that turns a precocious "aren't I clever" spotlight on itself. Yet onstage, as mounted by the City Players of St. Louis, these negatives fall by the wayside. Viewers who can derive pleasure from the cruel humor of ridicule are likely to laugh a lot.

Under the unifying direction of Christopher Limber, just about everything works in this St. Louis premiere. Dan Steinau's scenic design captures the essence of a trendy Manhattan apartment, even as its half-windows convey the menacing aura of a prison cell. With one overhead lamp, Kevin Fitzgerald's lighting is able to transfigure Amanda from a luscious Venus into a scary Medusa.

Although Amanda often is played by anorexic blondes in white T-shirts, Brooke Edwards uses her long black hair, tight black clothes -- and is that a black tattoo? -- to portray a dark, baleful insecurity. Now, as she approaches some of those marathon speeches, if she'll pull back on the speechifying and focus instead on the storytelling, she'll find that she's working with greater ease to greater effect.

As Bea, the hapless crisis center switchboard operator who Amanda phones in time of need, Stellie Siteman might as well be playing Rosie the Riveter: She drills every caustic line with accuracy and precision. Ted Gregory's Otto transforms the pathos of unrequited love into a topsy-turvy vaudeville act. Not only is Gregory hilarious, but his performance -- a brew of desperation larded with burlesque -- is in perfect sync with the playwright's quirky rhythms. Both in style and in content, Silver's writing reminds me of that of Murray Schisgal, who is best known for his 1964 angst-ridden hit Luv. In another comedy, Fragments (1968), Schisgal divided one character into three roles (two of whom were played by then-unknown actors Gene Hackman and James Coco). I sense that Silver has done something akin to that here. The now-fat-free author acknowledges that in his high school years, he was "a tub of lard." It may be that lithe Amanda and blimpy Otto are two sides of Silver's own androgynous self.

Or maybe not. But one thing is certain. If frantic, painful humor is to your taste, then City Players is serving up a surprisingly enjoyable portion of theater.

Time has not been kind to the "time warp" musical. The Rocky Horror Show might have been an eyebrow-raiser when first produced in the early 1970s. But today, nearly three decades later, the sight of a transvestite is hardly sensational. Remove the shock value, and what's left in this purported spoof of science-fiction movies is tame indeed. The book is witless; the music, bland; the lyrics, banal. Which is a big disappointment, because the press release for this New Line Theatre production had led me to believe that Rocky Horror Show creator Richard O'Brien was a "master satirist."

Let's keep things in perspective. Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain were master satirists. More recently, Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove was the work of a master satirist. Richard O'Brien is not a master-anything, except maybe a master huckster, a one-trick pony who has spent the last 30 years merchandising Rocky Horror with astonishing rapacity.

Despite the thinness of the material, I at least expected the production to rock. Alas, it is earthbound and dull. Except for Alan McCormick, who brings a perverse panache to the role of Riff Raff, even the cast seems to be painting by numbers. According to the playbill, O'Brien is hard at work on a "long-awaited" sequel. The sequel may be long-awaited, but the original is merely long in the tooth.