By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
It's not the end of the world if your dinner party is a bust. Or is it? In the smart new comedy Barbecue Apocalypse by Matt Lyle, a big city husband and wife struggle with adulthood. "We are in our 30s and have movie posters thumb-tacked to the walls!" wails the wife. They've invited two snazzier couples over for a backyard grillfest. Problem is, schlubby hubby Mike (Michael Federico) has never fired up the gas whatchamajig before and he's a little afraid to try. Spouse Deb (Martha Harms) bemoans their half-mown lawn and isn't sure how to accessorize a T-shirt and floral cotton capris.
Kitchen Dog Theater opens its month-long New Works Festival with this gem, directed by Lee Trull. It's the best new play this theater has found in years. It's damn funny, and that's what we're in need of right now on Dallas stages: lots and lots more funny.
And how nice that it comes from a guy with local ties. Lyle got his start on Dallas stages after graduating from Stephen F. Austin State University. His Bootstraps Comedy troupe had a hit with The Boxer, a "silent film onstage" that premiered at the 2007 Festival of Independent Theatres and went to the New York Fringe Fest and elsewhere. That one starred versatile Dallas actor Jeff Swearingen, who now appears in Barbecue Apocalypse as one of a pair of pretentious "yupsters."
Lyle left town to go through Second City's comedy writing program in Chicago. He worked at the ground-breaking Steppenwolf Theatre Company and founded the City Life Supplement podcast (it featured Allison Tolman, the former Dallas actress who also went through Second City and now stars on TV's Fargo series). Lyle and his wife, actress and artist Kim Geiter Lyle, also became parents. They recently inked heavy black eyebrows on the forehead of their latest little comedy collaborator and posted pictures of the startled-looking baby on their Facebook page. That's the kind of grown-ups they are.
If Lyle was a good playwright before, he's a better one now because he has some life on him. Barbecue Apocalypse is a tasty nine-layer dip of comedy commentary about the slippery matters of marriage, adult friendships and career failure (real or perceived). Lyle writes like a husband who uses everything for material. In the play, every time Deb spears Mike with criticism, she quickly follows up with an "I love you." And only to Mike does Deb admit she's having the party on the outdoor deck he built because the inside of their house is so ... blecch. When trendsetters Ash and Lulu (scorchingly good Swearingen and a loosey-goosey Leah Spillman) arrive, they're routed around the side of the house to keep them from seeing the indoor decor, which includes a beanbag chair held together with duct tape. (Scenery by Michael D. Raiford presents just the right amount of absurd reality.)
The third couple is the most sitcommish, starting with their names. Win (Max Hartman) is a pricky businessman with a sunbed tan. He boasts that 24-year-old girlfriend Glory (Miranda Parham) is off auditioning for the Rockettes. "I could defile a Rockette," he says with an icky squint. He barely acknowledges Ash and Lulu, with their Warby Parker glasses and skinny jeans. They never stop scrolling their iPhones. "Twitter is blowing up," deadpans Ash.
Twitter and everything else. Given the title of this play, it's not spoilery to reveal that Act 1 ends with an End of the World Event. Act 2 will take up a year later, showing how this small group of survivors has changed when they gather back at Mike and Deb's for another cookout. Sans technology, the worm has turned for everyone. Forced to live IRL, the strong have become the weak and the frightened have become warriors. The actors are all terrific, especially Swearingen, Harms and Spillman (and Barry Nash, who makes a brief second-act appearance). Their post-apocalyptic characters bring out everyone's comedy brio.