When Scary Met Sally

Goodbye, winter blues. Hello Human Female, springing from the wildly funny imagination of Texas playwright Matt Lyle, arrives as a late Valentine to the willy-nilly silliness of love among lovable misfits. In its world premiere by Audacity Theatre Lab at the tiny Ochre House Theatre next to Fair Park, Lyle's two-act comedy comes to life in a bright production that's lowest-of-low-budgeted but lavishly acted and ingeniously staged.

Take every B-movie about a mad scientist and whisk it into the plot of The Princess Bride. Add a hunchback, a giant man in drag, three stuffed cats, a trunk full of Cabbage Patch dolls, Timmy and Lassie on the edge of a crumbling cliff, some riffs on Nietzsche and the best of KISS—and you're only spooning up the first layer of hundreds of pop culture references Lyle stirs into his script. His gags are inspired by old Jack Benny and Sid Caesar routines, by Woody Allen, Mel Brooks (especially Young Frankenstein), Mike Myers (in Dr. Evil mode), The Wizard of Oz, Mommie Dearest, Of Mice and Men, the board game Clue and the feel-good rhythms of Captain Kangaroo and Mister Rogers.

Here's a 31-year-old writer with a jillion episodes of Beverly Hillbillies and Davey & Goliath stored on his cranial hard drive. Little bits of retro TV shows, commercials and cartoons are sprinkled through this play like fairy-tale breadcrumbs leading into a magical forest of theatrical fiction. How Lyle uses all this without dialogue and characters becoming hokey, cliché or bogged down in cuteness is what sets him apart from so many young playwrights who throw failed sitcom and movie scripts on small stages and try to call them plays.

Lyle may someday write for television—he left Dallas for Chicago last year to join Second City's comedy writing program—but he's already shown great promise with his theater work. Before Hello Human Female, there was the one-act The Boxer, which debuted at the Festival of Independent Theatres in 2007 and transferred to a successful run at Dallas Children's Theater. That one paid homage to the silent films of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, which also are Lyle obsessions. Acted without words, The Boxer told the sweet story of an unemployed Depression-era girl (played by Matt Lyle's wife, Kim) who masquerades as a man to train a scrawny pugilist for his big bout. That they fall in love is cause for much confusion, until, of course, the girl reveals her true identity. Lyle's plays usually lead to the happiest ending possible.

The Boxer was written with the title role in mind for Dallas actor Jeff Swearingen, one of those uniquely gifted physical comedians with a Chaplinesque flair for gesture and timing. Lyle also wrote a starring part for him in Hello Human Female: Blork, the Igor-like assistant to the play's unhinged scientist, Dr. Gorn (Jeremy Whiteker). Blork is a "patchwork human" made of bits of 35 corpses. In the sloppy construction job, Gorn forgot to give Blork a brain, but burdened him with three scrota and only one testicle.

From his entrance in the first act, Swearingen takes Blork to places even Lyle probably didn't imagine. The character would be funny enough as written, but this actor delivers a value-added version. Since Blork is made of recycled parts, Swearingen moves his limbs like a marionette with uneven strings. He keeps his eyes unfocused. His top lip seems to have come from a different stiff than his lower one. He scuttles unevenly across the little stage, like a crab with a hernia. But even when he's doing the goofiest business, like playing "Camptown Races" on the spoons, we know that inside Blork's little hunched-over bod throbs a giant-sized heart that's yearning to beat in unison with the leading lady's. Blork's a romantic, a Prince Charming in disguise.

The lady love is Tamela, a dorky 37-year-old virgin played by the compact, curly-haired Arianna Movassagh, who's terrific at ditzifying. Lured to Dr. Gorn's lab by an online dating service, Tamela falls in love at first sight with Blork. They are separated in true fairy fable fashion—Becca Shivers and Scott Milligan play several supporting characters who get in the couple's way—but they wind up back in each other's arms. Or in Blork's case, several other people's arms whipstitched onto his droopy shoulders.

Hello Human Female brings the funny in big and small ways. There's a close laugh-to-line ratio, but that stretches the performance past the two-hour mark. A little trimming and tightening wouldn't hurt. And though the "deleted scenes" after the curtain call are amusing, they're really unnecessary. Comedy should always leave 'em wanting more. We definitely want more plays by Matt Lyle. If they keep starring Jeff Swearingen, even better.

Hello Human Female

Echo Theatre has enjoyed near sellout houses at the Bath House Cultural Center during the current run of Arlene Hutton's charming Nibroc Trilogy, directed by Ellen Locy and Pam Myers-Morgan. The production concludes on February 28 with a marathon performance of all three plays (approximately six hours of theater, not including the dinner break).

See the whole shebang, if possible. But if you can catch only one of the plays, make it Gulf View Drive, the third installment in the gentle saga about Raleigh and May, a young Kentucky-born couple, their marriage and how they cope with tragedy, career stumbles, infidelity and family interference. It's a comedy, as are the other two—Last Train to Nibroc and See Rock City—but on a human scale. When the widowed mothers-in-law squabble over whose turn it is to cook meatloaf in a house overcrowded with visitors, it's like eavesdropping on a real family.

Hutton has a fine ear for Southernisms. "We don't play cards in mah church," harrumphs Raleigh's Baptist mom (played with stupendous heft by Susan McMath Platt). She disapproves of May's mother (equally wonderful Nancy Munger) joining other neighbor ladies for penny poker. Raleigh's mother has strict rules about everything. He's a successful writer of children's books, but that's not a "real job," according to his mother (who hasn't read his work for reasons revealed in Gulf View Drive). When his sister Treva (expert comedy actor Kristin McCollum) arrives from Kentucky, pregnant for the fourth time and near divorce, the real arguments commence.

The episodic set-up of the three plays provides an easy flow from one to the next. In the first, Raleigh and May, played by Ian Sinclair and Morgan Justiss with chemistry that won't quit, meet on a train back home to Kentucky from Los Angeles in the early 1940s. In the second, they're young marrieds, with his writing career just beginning. And in the final chapter, they're living in 1950s Florida, dealing with the ebbs and flows of family life and facing some major societal changes.

Ensemble acting doesn't get better than this. Here are actors who give generously to each other and to the audience in plays that feel like a beautiful gift to Dallas theater.

The Nibroc Trilogy

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner