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A CurtainUp Review
Hiding Behind Comets

You don't give no thought to like, how somebody was raised. . .  versus like, their, what is it, their DNA. Their genes? .--- Troy
Oh, No. I don't give no thought to how somebody was raised. Was either right or wrong, hard or easy, probably wrong and hard when it comes down to it. . .  It's what's inside the blood. The rest is bullshit and cholesterol. If your grandfather was a thief and your father was a thief, you're going to be a thief. --- Cole
Moira MacDonald and Dan Moran
Moira MacDonald &Dan Moran. (Photo: Fouad Salloum)
On some levels Hiding Behind Comets is a fictionalized postscript to a real event, the 1977 mass murder-suicide at cult leader Jim Jones' People's Temple in Guyana. On another it's an exploration of genetically determined destiny as it pertains to whether evil is attributable not just to a dictatorial leader but to those who allow themselves to become his handmaidens and executioners. Mainly, it's a tense psychological thriller about people living in the gritty, grungy universe that has made the 29th Street Rep the standard-bearer of dramas that at once fascinate and repel.

Plots in which sinister strangers drift into a bar or restaurant have been popular since Humphrey Bogart terrorized a diner's occupants in the 30s gangster movie Petrified Forest. The stranger in Dykstra's drama is a middle-aged man named Cole (Dan Moran). The scene is a seedy bar in a one-horse Northern California town, where 22-year-old Troy (Robert Mollohan) is bartender and the only other people to occupy one of the shabby tables are Erin (Amber Gallery) a ditzy blonde and his twin sister Honey (Moria MacDonald).

Cole's bipolar behavior pattern and the abundant hints dropped into the incisive and frequently x-rated dialogue make his connection to the twins and the fact that his visit to the bar isn't coincidental rather unsurprising. But no matter. Dykstra is a writer with a lot on his mind, and the surprises come from his ability to plunge beneath seemingly dull personality surfaces and ruminate on large issues in the midst of melodrama.

David Mogentale, in his first outing as a director, expertly steers his actors through the script's complexities, taking us on a tension filled ride into a world we never want to experience at first hand, with characters we'd rather not know personally. He primes us for the dark confrontations ahead by enveloping the theater in pitch blackness as eerie scraps of recorded voices from the Jonestown cult temple are heard. When the voice-overs stop and the lightsgo up again, we at first don't even notice the ominous stranger (Cole) who sits hunched over in an upstage corner, his head hidden inside the hood of his jacket. The lights and the focus are on Troy, Honey and Amber who look and act more like people in their late teens than their early twenties. Mogentale sees to it that every look and movement punctuates Dykstra's character revealing, terse dialogue.

Since the Jim Jones cult connection (a factual sum-up about the cult is included at the end of the production notes) is not an end of play bombshell, I'm not giving anything away when I tell you that Cole was a guard in the Jones colony in Guyana. In contrast to the mostly one sentence interchanges, the details of that involvement make for a monologue that seems overly long (this isn't Shakespeare!) Still, Cole's fully detailed history intensifies the danger that seems to emanate from him like a strong scent, just as being able to guess the cult massacre's significance to Troy and Honey doesn't diminish the disturbing implications of the shock of how all this all plays out .

Besides the issues of mind control, religious fanaticism and nature versus nurture that Cole's "mission" prompts, Dykstra also stirs some unusual observation on twinship into the dramatic mix. The title is part of a 4-way conversation that embodies Dykstra's wit: When Cole asks the young people if they ever heard of Jonestown, Troy volunteers that it was "like a settlement-- like a colony, you know for the. . .the settlers. Or the pilgrims." After Cole points out that's he's got the African Jonestown confused with Jamestown, Erin comes up with reference to a CD by the Concrete Blond called "Mexican Moon-" which her father told her was about a cult in South America which prompts Troy's "Weren't they trying to join a spaceship hiding behind a comet?" Erin then quotes her father on cults as "just nature's way of thinning the herd-- like, when we get enough people who are stupid enough to follow people who tell them to kill themselves, that's just nature's way of making sure those stupid genes don't get passed down to future generations and mess with the gene pool."

The actors serve the play well. Mr. Moran (who originated the role during the Cincinnati Playhouse premiere) plays Cole with the same thoroughly satisfying menace that director Mogentale has in the past conveyed in his own starring roles at 29th Street Rep. He's every inch the "Boogie man" Honey's mother has always warned her to avoid. Moira MacDonald, another 29th Street Rep veteran of dysfunctional characters brings the right mix of wasted American youth and sibling devotion to the potty-mouthed Honey. Robert Mollohan, is the not too swift Troy who seems more like Honey's kid brother than her twin. Amber Gallery doesn't have much to do as Erin, the sexually available bimbo friend.

Set designer Mark Symezak has surrounded the shabby bar with the walls painted as a midnight blue treescape to hint at the vast natural riches that these characters are too emotionally stunted and dull to explore. Tim Cramer's original music and sound design underscores the play's ominous mood.

While 29th Street Rep audiences tend to expect and relish characters as dysfunctional and foul-mouthed as Dykstra's foursome, I suppose I should include a caveat for the uninitiated. Cole and Honey have one particularly unhoneyed discussion about sexual acts which, at the performance I attended, propelled one man in the front row out of his seat and out of the theater before the intermission. If you want a show about apple-pie American siblings, better head uptown and buy a ticket for Little Women.

Brian Dykstra: Cornered & Alone

Hiding Behind Comets

Written by Brian Dykstra
Directed by David Mogentale
Cast: Moira MacDonald, Amber Gallery, Robert Mollohan and Dan Moran.
Set Design: Mark Symezak
Lighting Design: Douglas Cox
Sound Design/Composer: Tim Cramer
Fight/Special Effects Design: J. David Brimmer
Special Effects Construction: Laura Moss
Running time: 1 hrs 45 minutess, includes intermission.
29th Street Rep, 212 West 29th Street, 2nd Floor (7th/ 8th Avenues),
Tickets: $19 (TDF vouchers accepted).
Open Seating
From 2/10/05 to 3/13/05-- extended to 4/17/05; opening 2/15/05.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on February 12th press performance
Background on The People's Temple
The series of events that led to the deaths of more than 900 members of the "People's Temple" in the middle of a South American jungle was especially disturbing because it was both suicide and massacre and involved many small children. The Jonestown cult ;was founded in 1955 by Indianapolis preacher James Warren Jones who had no formal theological training. He based his ministry on a combination of religious and socialist philosophies.

In 1965, the church relocated to California and Jones stepped up his advocacy of left-wing political ideals more actively. An I.R.S. investigation and negative publicty prompted Jones to move his congregation to a new, isolated community in 1977 -- this turned out to be a tract of land in Guyana. Jones persuaded many of his followers to move to this new location.

It was at the behest of cult members' relatives concerned about their relatives being brainwashed victims under Jones' dictatorial powers that a government representative, California Congressman Leo Ryan, went on an investigative trip in November 1978. After reportedly being threatened by a Temple member Ryan decided to cut his trip short and return to the U.S. taking along some Jonestown residents who wished to leave. As they boarded their plane, a group of Jones's guards opened fire and Killed Ryan and four others.

Jones, realizing that the Congressman's murder would make it impossible for ther commune to continue insisted on the ultimate sacrifice -- that his followers take their own lives. More than 900 , were persuaded or forced to take a deadly concoction of purple Kool-Aid mixed with cyanide, sedatives, and tranquilizers. Many victims were children. Jones shot himself in the head.
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