Manson family values

Pterodactyls flies low to the ground--and the brow

Back in the '60s there was a TV show called The Time Tunnel about two guys with military haircuts who get hurled through a time-space-continuum contraption and land in a different era each week. The first thing they had to do was figure out in what epoch they were, but a troop of Roman soldiers marching by or some other subtle suggestion usually gave it away pretty quick.

Now, what if these same two travelers had been hurled into a different stage play each episode? How long would it take them to figure out whose play they were trapped in?

Not long, if they happened to be interjected into a Nicky Silver piece. The rough language, hyperdysfunctional family dynamics, movie minutiae, incest, cannibalism, and free-flowing bitterness would be dead giveaways. Silver is one of the most idiosyncratic of today's dramatists, and his work is gaining increasing recognition. (Fat Men In Skirts, another Silver play, just finished its run at the Margo Jones Theater in Fair Park.) But does distinctiveness of style necessarily say "qui," while the critically unimpaired would invariably reply "as if?"

New Theater Company's production of Silver's Pterodactyls, now playing at the Swiss Avenue Theater, invites a look at the quirkiness-vs.-quality question.

It's pure Silver. The story concerns an upper-middle-class WASP family (the Duncans) slowly imploding. The mother is a dipsomaniacal, Highland Park society type; the father, a philandering, penny-ante Polonius who spouts slogans about family values he doesn't expect anyone to believe. Sister is a twitching nitwit who has repressed virtually ever memory she ever had, while brother has deliberately contracted the AIDS virus by engaging in every kind of gay sex act he can think of. The sister's fiance is a literal orphan--not a figurative orphan like the brother and sister--who was sexually abused by priests as a boy.

The brother, Todd, returns home after an extended lost weekend during which anal sex was one of his more wholesome pastimes. He finds some dinosaur bones in the backyard and proceeds to piece them together while serving as the catalyst of his family's destruction. His "monument to the transience of everything" comes together just as his family comes apart. The play ends in the twilight of extinction, with Todd turning out the lights on his moribund parents.

Though it sounds grim, parts of the play are quite funny, particularly the Marie Antoinette-isms of the mon, played to the hilt by Charlotte Akin, New Theater Company's assistant artistic director. Staging socials is her passion: She reminiscences fondly about "the party I threw for the new lawn jockey." Her equanimity eventually disintegrates, however, when the big wedding fete she has planned is ruined because there is no rabbit pate. (The local bunnies have contracted cervical cancer.)

Kevin Kirkpatrick also gets some good farcical mileage from the fiance, a sad, earnest, none-too-bright aspiring film director named Tommy who takes a job as the family maid and finds himself rather liking it. Jim Jorgensen contributes a sharp comic sensibility as the disconnected dad who insists his son's name is "Buzz," and who is more than a little eager to tuck his daughter into bed.

Marco Salinas as Todd is the voice of anger and bitterness that keeps the play from being either farce or drama. Like the cannibalistic son in Fat Men In Skirts, Todd has become an amoral predator stalking his own family. Todd radiates resentment and contempt for his parents without disguising the corruption of his own actions and motives. "I am dirt and from myself I can demand nothing," he intones several times. His wedding gift to his sister is a pistol, which she puts to good use by blowing out her own addled brains.

Though these goings on are certainly watchable as executed by a capable cast (perceptively directed by Bruce Coleman), the play falls short of the savage indictment of contemporary values it aspires to be. The targets Silver aims at are easy, overly familiar ones: Cold, consumer-minded middle-class parents have been a staple of farce for decades, and have been skewered more subtly and effectively in films like The Graduate. Todd's parents, in any case, are farcical caricatures who don't really merit the incongruous anger he spews at them.

Then, Silver's writing becomes atonal at times and trapped in a staccato rhythm in exchanges:

"It's spring."
"It's freezing."
"There are birds out."
"There's a frost."

Though Silver can turn a neat phrase ("Facts flow through me like Chinese food"), his farcical passages are not as finely shaded, subtle, or telling as you hope they'll be. Silver often substitutes graphic language where you would like to see a class of ideas or wills.

There is an exception to this rule, though, and that is in the odd, partly parasitic and partly symbiotic relationship between mother and son in Silver's plays. In both Fat Men in Skirts and Pterodactyls, a son's rage at his mother becomes tempered by self-recognition and pity. Todd's mother expires not with a bang, but with a whimper, and it's the most affecting note in this corrosive, diverting, but not fully realized play.

Pterodactyls runs through June 8 at the Swiss Avenue Theater, 2700 Swiss. Call 871-

 
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