Two shows in a row, Kitchen Dog Theater has picked plays about older men having carnal relations with animals. In Edward Albee's The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, produced at KDT last fall, a well-to-do Manhattan husband fell in love and lust with a four-legged woolly mammal with big, soulful eyes. Albee, bless his heart, did keep those "dates" offstage. In the company's latest, Denis Johnson's Psychos Never Dream, things aren't quite so civilized as a brain-damaged Northern Idaho mountain man named Critter over-shares (with graphic simulation) the moves involved in shtupping cows, sheep, river turtles and a large jar of mayonnaise.
Bestiality and condiment copulation are the least of the crimes in Psychos. The play opens with brain-addled Critter (played by Raphael Parry) frantically burying the body of Ken Hubbard, a neighbor he's murdered after a fuss over water rights. Critter is planting the corpse in the yard of Vietnam vet Floyd (Sean Hennigan), who may or may not have killed his own wife and seven children and stuck them in this same plot of ground on Stump Farm Road.
Joining psychotic Critter and sociopathic Floyd in this tale from the creeps is a slovenly paranoiac, Red (Tina Parker). She's Ken's widow and the paramour, though that's too nice a word for it, of Floyd. "You fuck like a monkey on drugs," Floyd tells her after a noisy round of coitus gag-her-up-tus happening grunt-for-grunt onstage.
The grimy off-the-gridders in Johnson's disjointed scenario engage in acts of depravity no right-thinking human would ever perform—or, for that matter, want to witness in the flesh. But this is Kitchen Dog, specialists in the profoundly perverse. They love to put on shows about filthy, low-life men and dirty-legged women—Psychos Never Dream being the latest in a years-long string of plays about oversexed yokels with parricidal, homicidal, every-cidal tendencies.
What sets Psychos apart from KDT's previous redneck wrecks, however, is how director David Kennedy and his actors appear to be taking not a bit of it seriously. The material they're working with is extravagantly awful. Denis Johnson is an award-winning novelist (Tree of Smoke won the 2007 National Book Award) whose stories throb with the grim confessions of addicts and drifters. But in this 2004 play, he's resorted to gimmicks that pad out pages of fiction—off-topic phone conversations, digressions into unrelated anecdotes, such as a wordy discourse on "the myth of the Idaho potato"—and become time-sucking bores in real time on a stage. The only way to make a grim script like this watchable is to do it as an NC-17 joke on backwoods idiocy.
After that lively opening scene, a hillbilly's take on Hamlet's gravediggers, Psychos becomes a Grand Guignol comedy of terrors. Play and players develop raging Tarantino-itis. A few drops of stage blood won't do when buckets are available. Sound effects are earsplitting, from the anguished screams of slaughtered livestock to the police siren that abruptly ends Act 2. And why not have Raphael Parry strip to his birthday suit for shock value? Drenched head to heel in mud and red gore, he prowls the stage, giblets dangling limply, for an eternity.
Psychos Never Dream showcases its cast, which also includes Lisa Lee Schmidt as a rural lesbian cop named "Deputy Doobie," in performances so obviously hammed to the max that they become vaudevillian. These veteran actors heavy-foot through two and a half hours of violent cartoon mugging, particularly Parry, who's shaped like Elmer Fudd and delivers all of his lines with a high-pitched Thylvethter J. Puddytat lithp.
Sean Hennigan, playing Floyd with plenty of old-guy butt-swagger, knows exactly how to get a huge laugh saying, "I'd like to fuck you in every car in my junkyard" (the best line in the show). He also gets to tell Critter, "You're nuttier than a squirrel turd."
Actress Tina Parker is nuttiest by far, having the grandest time slopping around with greasy, matted hair as Red. Sprawling on the garbage-strewn cabin set (designed by Robert Winn), Parker wears only a short, thin nylon nightgown (exquisitely hideous costumes by Christina Vela) that acquires more nasty stains as her character sinks into madness. Though anyone who's ever seen her perform at KDT can recognize her usual actorly tricks, she is, as always, going at the role full bore. (Or, given Psychos' animal themes, boar.)
If you can stand the abattoir atmosphere and nonstop vulgarity, Psychos Never Dream is about as crazy-ass a comedy as Kitchen Dog has ever tried. That has to be what they're up to, right? Otherwise, it would just be a long night at a rotten modern play about cow-humping and killing people.
Upstart Productions is what Kitchen Dog Theater was 18 years ago, a fresh new bunch of eager young talents doing impressive work on next to no money. If they keep up the level of artistry they've shown in their freshman season, first with Suzan-Lori Parks' Topdog/Underdog and now with Kenneth Lonergan's This Is Our Youth, directed by René Moreno, Upstart could be Dallas' next great small-theater producer.
It just takes audience support. That's tough right now, even with Upstart's recent move from The Hub in Deep Ellum to the snazzier Green Zone on Industrial Boulevard. By opening weekend of Youth, they'd already slashed ticket prices in half, not a reflection on the quality of the show, which is tops, but of the competitive theater calendar (Out of the Loop fest is still going on at WaterTower in Addison) and the shrinking entertainment dollar.
Youth is set in a booming economic time, the early 1980s. The place is Manhattan, where spoiled brats of wealthy Upper West Siders face their 20s without ambition but with plenty of time and money to squander. Lights up on the parent-funded flat of Dennis Ziegler, a fast-talker making bank selling pot and coke to club kids. Given to tantrums, Dennis is none too thrilled when younger pal Warren shows up wanting to crash. Warren's been tossed to the curb by his garmento father, but he's exacted revenge by stealing $15K from the old man's briefcase.
This precisely crafted, sexy-witty play is set up as a caper of sorts—Will Warren return the dough or invest it in a shady drug deal?—but it gets better as it digs into the shifting male-to-male dynamic between shiftless playboy Dennis and sensitive, shy Warren. This Is Our Youth also is fine-tuned to the subtle linguistic quirks of its era. "Hello, Jessica, you're looking very automated tonight,'' says scared, overeager Warren to the girl he's crushing on.
Upstart's ensemble is outstanding. Drew Wall has a tender young Tim Hutton thing going as Warren. His phone call with the angry dad (we only hear Warren's side) feels so real it hurts to hear it. Cupcake-cute Barrett Nash bounces on in a bubble skirt as Jessica, but brings real depth to a role that could, with a lesser actress, be merely a preppy bubblehead. Matthew M. Fowler has the toughest part as scheming Dennis. He gradually allows us to see that under his loudmouth bully's coke-fueled bravado is a lonely kid hurting from parental apathy.
It's an old but familiar story—this play's almost wistful look back at a time that seemed unique and a generation that thought themselves special. They all do.