"In the beginning, there were dinosaurs." So says the sputtering Todd during the prologue of Nicky Silver's Pterodactyls, in which he delivers a very confused and compressed history of the world in front of one of those Mercator-projection-maps where a bloated Greenland dwarfs Africa. Five minutes and some mild amusement later, we are in the Duncan's posh living room in present-day Pennsylvania. There, fiancées Tommy and Emma--the one a waiter at Salad City, the other a hypochondriacal amnesiac--prepare to announce their engagement in front of Grace, Emma's highball-happy mother.
It was at this point early in the first act that a bowl of vegetarian chili hastily consumed an hour earlier became suddenly and violently disagreeable to me. When I returned to my seat later in the performance , a splendid 14-foot papier mâché T-Rex skeleton hung stage right. A friend's dutiful notes updated me on the Duncan family's situation. Tommy is now the family's eager maid; feeling "liberated" by his new uniform (black dress and tidy white apron), his attentions to Emma (who is in the family way) have fallen off. This may be partly because HIV-positive Todd has welcomed Tommy into the family by way of a hands-on sex-education demonstration. We also learn that Father Arthur desires to touch other family members--that would be Emma--in ways that afterschool specials warn us about. While I had been conducting an errant cold fusion experiment in my belly, it seems the nuclear family Duncan had suffered a core meltdown.
As ably staged by the Fully Reciprocal Theatre Company and directed by Becky Doggett, Pterodactyls occasionally lumbers, a bit like a dinosaur with duller teeth. Snobbish Grace ("men who wear jewelry are repulsive!") spends most of the second act preserved in alcohol, and actor Jennifer Adams seems to tire of this thick-tongued routine. As Tommy, Jeff Redman alternates between incredulity and dismay, attempting, not altogether unsuccessfully, to induce that charmed comic state where everything is mildly funny. In contrast, Sean Nugent's Todd tries aggressively to generate laughter. Too much bark here and too little bite.
Mostly, however, the cast presents a faithful interpretation of Silver's script, a fickle amalgam of Thorton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth (which I rather like) and the vapid antics of Christopher Durang (which I do not like at all). As with Durang, Pterodactyls is meant to seem a send-up of some not-entirely-clear format. Arthur's clumsy attempts at faux-rapport ("let me in," he pleads with Todd) recall the television melodrama. Grace's alcoholism, Emma's pregnancy, and Tommy's cross-dressing confessional ("how am I supposed to have a healthy self-image if I don't feel good about the way I look?") parody a genre we'll call high family dysfunction. This is not unfunny.
Silver's debt to Wilder--from the prehistoric prologue and on-stage dinosaur to the family unit in perpetual disrepair--is more one of substance than style. (Wilder himself was accused of taking liberties with Finnegan's Wake; I would maintain that anyone who can conquer Joyce's text should be welcome to the spoils.) Where Wilder's Antrobous clan encounter Cain, "the deluge," and a coming apocalypse, Silver's intention is to oversee the dissolution of the Duncans, and through them, the extinction of the white-upper-middle-class-patriarchal-family-as-we-know-it.
If the metaphor of an on-stage dinosaur weren't enough, Pterodactyls ends with Todd rhapsodizing on a dimmed stage from the near side of a new ice age. Woody Allen employed a similar skeleton trick near the end of Manhattan (and perhaps also overplayed his hand), nebbishly pontificating on the significance of small ethical decisions in the grand geothermal scale of things. One thinks too of Margaret Drabble's 1970s novel The Ice Age, in which characters, as one critic put it, "actually welcome depression as a relief from anxiety." In these works, something (though it may be forgotten), somewhere (though it may be lost), matters.
In contrast, Silver's detached, ironic approach reminds me most of British stunt-artist Damien Hirst, whose clear display cases of dead fish, and paired, necrophilic cows suspended in lucite seem to revel in their mere existence. Like Hirst, Silver's clinically administered hyperbole proves a victory for amusement, but a dark hour for empathy. CP
Pterodactyls runs through October 26 at the Hennepin Center for the Arts' Little Theatre; call 257-7265.