Watching Phoenix Theatre's production of Lizard is like listening to a bad joke told by a beautiful person. Dennis Covington's meandering morality tale has been superbly mounted and is acted by one of the most impressive local casts in recent memory. But beneath the glitzy facade and despite all the big names, there's not much there. This is one long, boring play.
Considering all the attention Lizard has been receiving, I expected to be wowed. The play was workshopped as part of the Southern Writers' Project at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, and later performed at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. The novel on which it is based won numerous literary awards, and has been adapted as a screenplay for a film that begins shooting this summer for Geffen Pictures. But perhaps the show's most baffling distinction is that it was named "Best New American Play" at last year's National Theatre Conference. There must not have been much competition, because this is the most unrelenting two-act I have sat through in months. If it hadn't been for the nonstop parade of talented actors crossing the stage, I might have nodded off.
Which begs the question: What accounts for the high-quality talent here in roles that amount to little more than walk-ons? Ginny Harman pulls faces and gobbles scenery, but she does it in the shadows of the principal performers. Michelle Gardner has a couple of funny moments, but blink and you'll miss her. And Sally Jo Bannow, who's headlined in her last five shows, spends most of the evening in her dressing room. She appears in two small, sluggish scenes as Lizard's mother, leading me to wonder what role she passed up to perform in this thing.
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The story concerns a deformed boy, Lucius, who is packed off to a home for retarded kids when his mother remarries. This is no Flowers for Algernon, however; he is quickly sprung from the county home and heads off on a seemingly endless journey, during which he collects the nickname "Lizard" and a lot of homespun wisdom from some enormously uninteresting characters.
This production marks the company's biggest show of the season and launches a partnership between Phoenix Theatre and the Arizona State University theatre department MFA program. The title role is well-acted by ASU master's student Ben Brittain, who gives the disfigured kid some charm and intelligence and who more than holds his own alongside big talents like Gerald Burgess and Lillie Richardson. But a busload of Barrymores couldn't overcome the plodding, episodic stories that Covington has strung together here. We never spend enough time with any one of the two dozen characters to get to know them, and Lizard himself is so busy commenting on the action that we find out little about him, either.
The play's one bright spot is its play-within-a-play production of The Tempest, in which Lizard plays Caliban and where Brittain really shines. These few minutes aside, there's too much play and too little substance to keep the story moving. Instead, it lumbers along like an ox cart full of Equity actors, snagging inexplicable accolades and boring its audience to tears.
Lizard continues through Sunday, April 20, at Phoenix Theatre, 100 East McDowell.