Psychotic Reaction

'The Young Machines' manufactures a freak-out; 'The Perfect Crime' is guilty of silliness

The Young Machinesstarts with a pre-recorded monologue that I mistook for voiceover king and jazz poet Ken Nordine. It was actually John O'Donoghue, the play's writer and director, speaking with a calm sonority that could sell Folgers coffee or narrate a psychedelic nightmare. "You never understand," he says, and we don't. This is a strange and inscrutable play, with both qualities being central to its charm. Its tone is derived from 1960s B movies and TV police dramas, but its storyline has been laid out like a puzzle with half the pieces tossed out. The viewer's comprehension is not aided by the cavernous Franklin ArtWorks theater space, where words reverberate and sometimes get lost in acoustically merciless concrete. Watching the play, I sometimes experienced boredom of an intensity I normally associate with church or waiting rooms. My thoughts wandered to what I would wear on Easter (velour jumpsuit) or whether I had paid my last parking ticket (no). And yet the play is sticking with me; I'm still chuckling over its most inspired scenes.

The show elliptically follows a conspiratorial plot, something involving an unseen nightclub owner named Marvin Moulde, and a potent brain implant previously tested on seals. Dave "Jazz" Dogwood (O'Donoghue) orchestrates the plan in an underground hideout, for which the literally and metaphorically cold space is well suited. The four-person cast acts in a kind of loving parody of gritty TV "realism." The characters are either familiar types or seem like they ought to be: the vampish sci-fi villain (Barbara Meyer, who deserves more stage time), the pigeon-toed misfit (Don Mabley-Allen, whose incongruous speech about Montana ranch-style pizza has a Harold Pinter or Tarantino feel), the stylish cynic (would-be Rat Packer Jim Bovino, whose pratfall is of Chevy Chase quality).

O'Donoghue is harder to peg. He purposefully and quite winningly performs in a wooden, self-conscious style, delivering loopy variations on action-movie one-liners with a straight face. Well, straight but contorted. His mouth is often frozen open in a toothless "O," which, combined with a breathy rasp--quite different from his voiceover style--brings to mind Ronald Reagan.

We're the NRA: Richard C. Grube and Jodee Thelen in the Jungle Theater's 'Perfect Crime'
Ann Marsden
We're the NRA: Richard C. Grube and Jodee Thelen in the Jungle Theater's 'Perfect Crime'

An original score of guitar-based instrumentals by the Pins and other Flaneur-associated combos augments the show, often evoking the "freak-out" scenes from late-'60s movies. The production's combined effect is like watching late-night TV with the stereo playing in an adjacent room while coming down from an oven-cleaner high. Which may or may not be an endorsement.

 

Perfect Crime, the longest-running non-musical in New York theater history, is on one level a psychological mystery like Ira Levin's Deathtrap or Anthony Shaffer's Sleuth. This is not the level, however, on which it succeeds. Its complicated plot is not only hard to follow but not worth following. It's ludicrous, really, and not particularly suspenseful. No matter. Under the direction of Bain Boehlke, Warren Manzi's play is escapist comedy of rare quality, smart yet unapologetically silly. Since humor more than intrigue is the production's raison d'être, the play loses steam at the point most examples of the genre peak, just as the mystery begins to get solved.

The show centers on Margaret Thorne Brent (Jodee Thelen), an upper-crust psychiatrist who may or may not have iced her husband (Phil Kilbourne) in their remote Connecticut home. As in his brooding performance earlier this year in Frank Theatre's The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Kilbourne displays an appealing refinement, but for a much different purpose. Here he's a smoking-jacketed eccentric, as convincingly uxorious as he is threatening to police inspector James Ascher (straight-man Jeff Gadbois). The uncontested star, though, is Thelen, whose performance is a hilarious mix of haughty sarcasm and hair-flipping sexiness. On opening night, she so bewitched the audience that she earned laughs (five or six times) just for pronouncing the word "woods" in a laden-with-who-knows-what way. Thelen is commanding enough to blot out any doubts one might have about the script. Further proof, I guess, that it's the killer, not the crime.

 
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