After seeing her performance in In Mixed Company's Pterodactyls, I have scratched Barbara McGrath from my list of Actors I'd Rather Not See On Stage Ever Again. McGrath's star turn in Nicky Silver's dark comedy has wiped away my memory of her last several attempts at acting, which I found shrill and hammy. She must, I'm now guessing, have been miscast in those other roles, or was perhaps merely underdirected. Here, in a showy part helmed by wunderkind Scott Balthazor, the actress soars.
McGrath was born, it seems, to play a shrewish drunk. Freed from dreary supporting parts (not to mention the navy pantsuit she's sported in many of her recent stage roles), she stumbles off with every scene in which she appears. As Grace, McGrath turns Silver's stereotypical drunken wife and mother from hell into a three-dimensional harridan whose every tantrum elicited hoots and applause on opening night.
Grace is cranky because her husband (Paul Benchwick) has lost his job as president of a local bank and because her hypochondriac daughter, Emma (Angelica Frost), wants to marry Tommy (T.J. Bigbee), a waiter from Salad City ("My daughter is used to the finer things -- Godiva chocolates, prescription pills!") who aspires to a career in films. Tommy becomes the Duncans' housekeeper and quickly falls in love with prodigal son Todd (Ron May), who returns home after five years' absence to announce that he has AIDS and needs a place to stay. While her husband taunts their son with made-up memories of Todd's boyhood, Grace plans Todd's funeral (although he's asymptomatic) and Emma's wedding (despite Tommy's proclamations of love for her brother). Todd excavates dinosaur bones in the front yard and watches as his family noisily combusts.
Phoenix Theatre's Little Theatre, 100 East McDowell
Continues through April 14. Call 602-254-2151.
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Silver's title is a pretentious, theatrical reference to mortality (life is transient: pterodactyls, now extinct, once ruled the skies). But there's little pretense in the long list of subtopics he's gathered here, all of which get a good going over: sexual abuse, classism, pedophilia, incest, homosexuality, marriage, mental illness and that new old favorite, the dysfunctional family.
The story is meant to belong to Todd, who played a rapist in a sixth-grade production of Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party ("It was private school," he explains). But Balthazor has wisely downplayed the AIDS angle (when it premièred in the early '90s, Pterodactyls was received as an "AIDS play," the fate of many such stories with HIV-positive characters) and has shifted the focus to the sickness of Silver's absurd family. The author's rapid-fire, deliberately contrived dialogue is handled perfectly by the first-rate cast, and Balthazor's brisk, stylish direction punches up the grim desperation of these people without forfeiting a single sick laugh.
The biggest laugh of the night went to costume designer Paul Wilson's wedding dress, and Michael Brooks' splendid Philadelphia living room set evoked a gasp when it suddenly sprang to life at the denouement.
The audience was not so enraptured by these goings-on that we didn't notice the moron in the front row whose cell phone rang throughout the first act; perhaps IMC should replace its polite "Please turn off phones and pagers" sign with one that reads "Please turn off phones and pagers or we'll chop off your hands with a dull ax, you stupid fucking asshole." Nor were we impervious to the pair from Philadelphia who spoke to the performers as if they were at home in front of their television. Note to visiting Pennsylvanians: The actors can hear you. Shut up.