Tangled Webs

Spider Woman wraps Uptown Players in her spell; Dinner with Friends and Artificial Jungle feel like traps

Dinner with Friends tastes like leftovers.


Sometimes a director falls so in love with an idea of how a show should be done, she forgets to include the audience in the plan. With The Artificial Jungle, the Charles Ludlam comedy now winding up its run at the Bath House Cultural Center, director Christine Vela of the Our Endeavors Theater Collective has made that mistake.

The play broadly spoofs '50s film noir classics, with plot elements borrowed from The Postman Always Rings Twiceand Double Indemnity. Sexy wife, nebbish husband, mysterious drifter, hysterical mother-in-law, nosy cop--good character roles all. Wife wants drifter to dust husband so she'll collect insurance loot. In The Artificial Jungle, the couple, Roxanne (Lainie Simonton) and Chester Nurdiger (Andy Long), run a spooky pet shop where a huge tank of piranhas figures heavily in the action. Meddling Mama is played by a plus-sized man (Patrick Johnson) wearing yards of polka dots and an acre of apron.

What a pretty, poisonous creature the Spider Woman is, played by smoky-voiced Linda Leonard.
Mark Oristano
What a pretty, poisonous creature the Spider Woman is, played by smoky-voiced Linda Leonard.

For the first 10 minutes, it's all pretty funny. Simonton is an actress built with so many sharp angles you'd need a protractor to get her measurements. She strikes comically vampy, exaggerated poses and spits out dialogue as if each word were soaked overnight in paregoric. As the husband, Long, mushy as an unbaked loaf, speaks with a high-pitched, Jerry Lewis whine. David Goodwin, playing drifter Zachary Crane, pouts and sweats provocatively.

If they all weren't working so hard at hitting the right spots in their overdirected blocking, the audience could sit back and enjoy it. But director Vela, by choreographing every sentence, every gesture, every inhale and exhale in this odd production, makes it a chore to watch. She uses actors like marionettes, posing and positioning them this way and that and then imposing a wooden acting style seen previously only in Ed Wood movies. A little bad-on-purpose emoting is fine. Too much of it triggers cluster headaches.

It's not a great evening of theater, but The Artificial Jungle does contain one of the best lines ever uttered on a Dallas stage. Says Roxanne to Zachary, "I didn't get these lips from suckin' doorknobs.'' Curtain!

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