Cry uncle!

If you're looking for a tax write-off that also fortifies the First Amendment, not to mention the cause of artistic richness and innovation in our city, a wealthy Dallas businessperson could do worse than to drop a big wad of money into the lap of the Undermain Theatre. It prides itself on presenting theater that "challenges" and "stimulates," and unlike some amateur provocateurs with axes to grind, it has the talent to support its bold play selections.

Case in point: its world premiere of John O'Keefe's The Deatherians, which probably featured more sex, gore, and nudity than any other presentation ever to hit a Dallas stage. But that selection was far more than a tasteless display intended to muss up the blue-hairs--it presented a loopy, hilarious, and absurdly pointed vision of both regulated health care and a world that has collapsed under the burden of its own appetites. In other words, the play turned its shock value against not only its own excesses, but ours as well. Nobody was spared, everybody was made a little uncomfortable, and the Undermain offered a cautionary tale as a funhouse distortion of Western appetites run amok. Sounds like a smashing recipe for nutritious theater to me--tastes good, and it's good for you.

And then we have Uncle Bob, the Undermain's Dallas premiere of Steppenwolf playwright-character actor Austin Pendleton's two-character curiosity. In terms of sex and violence, this sometimes haunting, sometimes hysterical script is no match for O'Keefe's comedy--it has none of the former and a little of the latter. Unfortunately, Pendleton's tale of a book-smart, AIDS-ravaged uncle and his none-too-bright nephew trapped in a vortex of self-pity and incestuous longing also lacks the focus and barbaric imagination of O'Keefe's satire. As a firm supporter of art as decadent catharsis, I'm thrilled to wander into as many desperate, depraved corners of human experience as the artists want to lead me. But I expect to learn something about myself, or at least make an unexpected connection with feelings and actions that society teaches me should be shunned. That's the real thrill of dirty art.

The two adult males at the center of Uncle Bob are difficult to connect with on even a superficial level. That's probably because they can't really connect with each other (at least, not until the hint of sexual union that lingers over the play's somber final moments), which is one of the playwright's points, undoubtedly. But the point is moot: Why present a play about two grown men who bicker endlessly and constantly deny their own feelings unless you attach at least a hint of sympathy or wisdom or awareness of something outside the tiny New York apartment where they fight and repress themselves? At its best, Uncle Bob makes you examine the relationship between family responsibility and emotional sadomasochism, needing and despising. At its worst (and the script's worst tendencies control the wheel too often, at least in this production), you're left feeling emotionally smothered and intellectually dehydrated.

Bob (Raphael Parry) is a failed novelist and actor languishing near the final stages of AIDS. Lamenting a wife who recently left him and despising a well-to-do brother who pays for his apartment, Bob apparently contracted the HIV virus as part of a suicidal experimentation with unprotected gay sex. He is visited by his grown nephew Josh (Cameron Cobbe), a headphone wearing wastrel who vociferously eschews the distasteful habits of "faggots" but has come to New York in a rather obscure attempt to reconcile Bob with his brother, Josh's father. But there is more push than pull in their mutually bitter dance of attraction-repulsion: They both feel resentment of the unseen man who subsidizes their lives, they both feel like flops in almost anything of worth they've ever attempted, and they both have experienced a dim sexual interest in each other that began when Josh was eight years old.

Sound like a pair of guys you'd like to spend two hours with? Actually, the relentless antagonism in Uncle Bob is part of the "guerrilla theater" formula conceived some 20 years ago by Steppenwolf, the famed company from which the playwright hails. But what's most frustrating is how the prodigious talents of Raphael Parry and Cameron Cobbe are sealed up tight here. Parry excels at broad, rubber-faced comic roles, so it's initially impressive to see him play a character that (presumably) has more going on inside than he ever admits to. I still remember Cameron Cobbe's sly seduction scene from The Deatherians and am impressed with his long-limbed, loud-mouthed habitation of this young layabout who's had everything handed to him and can't understand why he still needs more. It's probably a measure of their ability that the utter unredeemability of both characters hit me right between the eyes and had me lusting for terrible things to happen to them.

I'm tempted to suggest that a different approach to this script might have yielded a more nuanced examination of the volatile themes on display here. There's so much shouting going on, it's difficult to allow what these men are actually saying to sink in. Under the unrelenting hand of director Bruce DuBose, Raphael Parry and Cameron Cobbe seem more engaged in a noisy cockfight than an agitated ballet of desire. The berating, hostile, abrasive tone of their exchanges begins shortly after the start and rarely lets up. When their claustrophobic relationship finally explodes in physical violence, the tumbling altercation feels anti-climactic, a rather strained attempt to do something with all the steam these hotheads have built up. After the second act, I began to wish that the whiny Bob would just die and that the spoiled Josh would crash his Porsche--preferably before my eyes and very quickly, so that I could release some of my own impatience with their fatal self-involvement.

As an unusual coda to a negative review, I heartily suggest (for those whose discretionary income permits) that you plunk down $35 and attend the February 16 performance of Uncle Bob, when playwright Austin Pendleton will take a short break from his current role in the Broadway revival of The Diary of Anne Frank to attend the show and take questions from the audience. Then you can ask both Bruce DuBose and him what the hell they were up to with this chaotic, grating melange of neediness and anger. In any case, you'll be giving money to a company that's brave enough to risk this kind of failure. And maybe Pendleton and DuBose can provide the key that'll open a true appreciation of Uncle Bob. But try as he might to get close to the story, this critic felt locked out.

Uncle Bob runs through February 28. Call 747-5515.


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