Summer Camp

Hell bent for leather: Grant Whittaker and Leif Jurgensen in 'The Artificial Jungle'
Jayson Wold

Say you're Chester Nurdinger: an aging, balding, crude-mannered owner of a two-bit pet shop in Lower Manhattan. Your wife, Roxanne, is a dolled-up strumpet who makes no bones about her boredom and dissatisfaction. Best then not to hire Zach, the leather-jacketed young drifter who wanders in the door one day, right? But you think otherwise, and soon enough Roxanne is urging Zach to knock you off.

The Artificial Jungle is the creation of Charles Ludlam, founder of New York's Ridiculous Theatrical Company and its driving force until his death from AIDS in 1987. Ludlam was a staunch proponent of the so-bad-it's-good approach to the stage, firing off camp parodies of Hamlet and Finnegan's Wake, among others. For this, his last play, he sent up The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Director Binky Wood's cast keeps the proceedings broad and self-satirizing, imploding the seriousness of the original film with unselfconscious caricatures that convert sexual heat and calculated homicide into absurdist trifles. The real drama of the evening, then, is whether the show will be bad enough to come out on the other side and provide sufficient twisted enjoyment. The answer is sort of.

John Bueche and Julian McFaul's set design makes a little go a long way, with pleasing kitschy clutter filling the Nurdingers' living space, and little surprises like a low-tech artificial piranha and an exploding parrot. Tom Sherohman plays Chester as a man content with his little kingdom and his glamorous queen, and his outbursts and flustered credulity underpin the good-natured laughs to be had.

Grant Whittaker, in drag as Roxanne (drag was a central component to Ludlam's work), turns in a one-note performance that somehow doesn't go stale. Roxanne is all sultry pout and camp glamour, with a haughty disgust for Chester that she delivers in a deadpan Teutonic accent while enduring his ass-slapping and hollering. Once he's dead, Whittaker launches into a manic and very funny dance routine (a little salsa, a little mambo, a good deal of rump shaking).

Leif Jurgensen's Zach is a nice guy who fails to deliver on the malevolent smolder of his entrance--while his lust for Roxanne doesn't abate, when it comes time to kill Chester his conscience gets the better of him. When Chester comes back in ghoulish form after his death, Zach promptly falls apart. At this point the production is at its most successful, and the cast begins to hit a stride that delivers on the ridiculousness of its premise. This comes, though, after a halting start.

Events proceed toward Roxanne and Zach's comeuppance, which is punctuated by a death speech that one suspects reflects Ludlam's philosophy: Life itself is a theater of the absurd. Fair enough. The play is essentially set up to short-circuit any sort of serious critical appraisal, by its nature puncturing the balloon of artistic high-mindedness. Then again, reducing melodrama to gender-bending farce and playing serious lines for laughs is also an endeavor in deconstructionist satire, the bite of which, at least in this revival, starts to wear off rather quickly.

Still, the show asks to be taken as a trifle, and trifles exist for nothing more than enjoyment. In this case, there are too many stretches that are only mildly amusing rather than knee-slapping funny. The work essentially asks its audience to go beyond the tedium of knowing where its plot is headed and to luxuriate in the tawdry crappiness beneath the surface of a film that (by inference) tried too hard to be serious in the first place. The play, alas, frequently sets up moments of hilarity that don't pay off, and cries out for more passages like Roxanne's wild dance, or her gross-out tongue-battle kisses with Zach--times when the players managed real inhibition and goofy fun. In the end The Artificial Jungle comes off as an art experiment masquerading as silliness, albeit one that affords several spots of daft pleasure along the way.

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