Identity Card

(Mostly) Harmless Theatre's Fuddy Meers wrestles with identity, communication and trust, and the result is a strange and often funny farce

Jul 25, 2001 at 4:00 am
Franz Kafka once wrote how amazing it is that when we wake up each morning, we find everything as we left it the night before. He would have enjoyed the absurd, funny and provocative Fuddy Meers, a St. Louis premiere by (Mostly) Harmless Theatre, in which Claire (Lavonne Byers), suffering from a rare form of amnesia that erases her memory when she falls asleep, wakes up every morning to a brand-new world. Her patient husband, Richard (John O'Hearn), brings her up to speed with a guidebook he's compiled that contains information on their son, their home, how to work the appliances -- everything except how she lost her memory in the first place. When she's abruptly kidnapped by the disfigured and lisping Limping Man (David Brink), the cause of her condition and the trustworthiness of those around her become the mystery at the center of the play.

Fuddy Meers, an off-Broadway hit last year written by David Lindsay-Abaire, is a deceptively simple farce about identity and how we're dependent on other people to define our reality. At one point, Richard states, "Stability is a fragile figurine," and it's true for everyone, not just amnesia victims. Claire's search continues at the home of her mother, Gertie (Sally Eaton); Gertie is the only one who can explain Claire's past, but because of a stroke, she's unintelligible. Like the Limping Man's lisp, the mangled "stroke talk" is used for laughs (the play's title is one of Gertie's phrases) but also reflects the theme of noncommunication. Eaton excellently conveys the still mentally sharp character's frustration at not being understood. On the fringe of the quirky plot is B. Weller as Millet, a neurotic who communicates his darker thoughts through his foul-mouthed sock puppet, Hinky-Binky. Weller stands out in what amounts to a dual role; at times he actually makes us forget that he's working the sock. An excellent Kenneth Pruitt portrays both the angry and touching sides of Claire's petulant teenage son, who regains his own identity when "reunited" with his mother. Michelle Rebollo gets her laughs as Heidi, whose role cannot be explained without giving away the plot; O'Hearn and Brink are solid as the men in Claire's life, neither of whom is what he first seems.

In the central role, Byers captures Claire's troubled side but is less convincing as a blank slate; as one memory sparks another, she seems to accept them all with little reaction or sense of discovery. In past roles, Byers has always seemed to know more than she's saying; here, she's supposed to know less, and her enigmatic quality works against her. There are moments, though, when Byers shines, as in a kitchen monologue during which Claire describes the death of a dog; or the ending, when she's found the truth at last but not sure what she's gained in the process.

Director Robert Neblett stages the chaos nicely, although sometimes the pacing lagged as the cast seemed to pause for laughs that weren't there (maybe they were the previous night; that's why live comedy is so hard). At other times, they found the groove and the laughs flowed. Justin Barisonek's economical scene design allowed smooth transitions between the multiple sets, and Deniz Muftuoglu's costumes cleverly defined the characters.