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A CurtainUp Review
The Pitchfork Disney
By Les Gutman
Until now, New York has been deprived of this unabashedly weird Philip (The Krays) Ridley play. It has been a cult-inducing success in Europe, and had its American premiere (which I saw) at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in DC in 1995. It is a seemingly inexplicable work that demands a particular state of mind in order to "coagulate." This production never induces the necessary chemical reaction.
The Stray twins, Presley (Alex Draper) and Haley (Lynn Hawley), age 28, live together in a sublimely tortured state of arrested development, apparently brought on by the perhaps mysterious disappearance of their parents. In the decade since, they have subsisted on chocolate and barbiturates. Whereas Haley spends most of her time sleeping, Presley's eyes suggest he is an insomniac. They spend a lot of time recalling, over and again it seems, the particular terror of their abundant nightmares. In their spare time, Presley regales Haley with a story that pretends they are the survivors of a nuclear holocaust. Lovely.
The play, set in the living area of the Stray flat in London's East End, is performed in one act. Ridley's script relies on two alternating techniques: the uneasy interaction between two characters and long, emotional soliloquies. Essentially, it can be divided into three parts. In none are we expected to fathom much. This is a dream-state, in which the line between what is real and what is imagined is blurry. As in dreams, thoughts are often interrupted and fragmented, never to be resolved. Helping the audience follow the story is the last thing on Ridley's mind. His aim is to have it share the characters anxieitie, the kind borne out in half-baked dreams.
In the first segment, the twins are introduced, although that term is a bit optimistic. It's an eccentric and here brutally tedious exposition. Carrying an audience's attention through it requires cunning, and there is none in evidence here. Anticipating (by virtue of the dialogue as well as the playbill) the imminent arrival of more characters, I started to pray for the light at the end of this tunnel.
Haley doesn't make it; she falls asleep in the armchair. Presley goes outside and returns a minute later with Cosmo Disney (Alex Kilgore), a cabaret entertainer whose specialty is eating cockroaches. I have noticed over the years that throwing up onstage is not a good way to endear an audience. This is the notable feature of the unsettling Cosmo's entrance, followed in short order by the equally discomfiting sight of Presley cleaning up the mess. What follows is a bizarre chess match that is occasionally unpleasant to witness, even from the audience, but that can be spellbinding. Not here.
The final, late segment adds to the mix the hulking Pitchfork Cavalier (Brandt Johnson), Cosmo's work associate (but not his friend, he insists). The mask hiding his face is not needed to imbue him with a horrific patina; his sheer size lumbering about the stage is more than adequate.
Pitchfork plays a bit like a mystery in which the clues are carefully hidden, and never revealed. On an obvious level, the question is, what happened to the parents? More fundamentally, Ridley simply causes us to wonder what it is we are seeing, and fret over it as we might over the meaning of our dreams.
This production is directed by Rob Bundy, who directed the Woolly Mammoth version and has directed a third staging as well. He knows where the markers are, and hits them, but he is not able to guide the actors to performances that exploit them.
Ridley's leaden speeches bore. Hawley's rendition of Haley's most memorable scene, delivered with enough spirit to provoke applause, nonetheless fall flat in the desert in which it finds itself. Her most significant acting achievement is in her ability to feign sleep onstage for over an hour, but remaining awake enough to stir intermittently to talk in her sleep.
Draper's sleepy portrayal of Presley may be apt but it is too enigmatic to be of interest. Presley's dark underbelly is apparent, but insufficiently illuminated to provoke the sustained discomfort Ridley intends. Presley needs to be seen as simultaneously frail and menacing; instead we get goofy and strange.
Likewise, Cosmo, who should be Presley's provocateur as well as nemesis, is rendered largely ineffectual by Kilgore. Terror is played mostly for its slapstick qualities, with much mugging and intentional over-acting. Any sense of suspense dissipates quickly. Kilgore, it should be noted, was a last minute cast substitution that prompted a delay of the show's opening. Perhaps he is just "not there yet," but it seems more likely he just grabs the obvious at the expense of the subtle.
Although Greg MacPherson's lighting is excellent, the remaining design elements reflect a similar choice: there is no invention much less risk-taking going on. Whatever one may think of the world view Ridley's play seems to suggest, that's a bad milieu in which to expect it to flourish.