What does it say about us that we are transfixed by train wrecks? In Nicky Silver's absurdist black comedy "Pterodactyls," family dysfunction is played for laughs -- hearty guffaws, chortles, chuckles, nervous giggles and shocking gasps.
With crisp comic timing, a strong ensemble skewers hypocrisy but doesn't forego feelings in the St. Louis Actors Studio's production, keeping us riveted as the subject matter turns darker and uglier. The dinosaur metaphor isn't subtle, as these relics from the '80s display deeply damaged personalities in serious denial. The characters' disintegration becomes uncomfortable when we recognize people we know and (cough, cough) ourselves.
Clueless Arthur and needy Grace Duncan, an affluent Philadelphia Main Line couple who are all about appearances, are parents to two grown children -- Emma, a high-strung hypochondriac daughter engaged to lower-class Tommy, an orphan who works as a server, and Todd, who left five years ago, returning with the announcement that he has AIDS.
Penny Kols, reprising the role of Grace (HotHouse Theatre Company, 1999), is a manic wonder as the hyper society maven, in garish '80s garb, trying to keep a tight grip on her screwed-up brood as she blathers about designer outfits and party hors d'oeuvres. In a fierce, heart-breaking performance, Kols leaves tire marks on everyone, a pathetic caricature warped by conspicuous consumption. Veteran character actor Whit Reichert, a Belleville native, solidly plays against type as a befuddled breadwinner, perpetually in a confused state.
Silver's disdain is obvious for whatever misplaced priorities springs from higher social status and conventional family roles that stifle growth, and his sharp, sassy dialogue stings. The marriage is a sham -- dad is an adulterer and mom is an alcoholic, and both smothered a favorite child with affection. The daughter's repression and the son's promiscuity are unveiled in serious moments.
As Emma, vivacious Betsy Bowman imbues the flaky debutante with a melancholy edge, and brings uncommon depth to such a bittersweet role. Hiding deep wounds with a nonchalant demeanor, Nathan Bush is convincing as the prodigal son Todd, a catalyst to the family's unraveling. He's carefully guarded at first, but his defenses are chipped away.
As the outsider to the family circus, comical James Slover is hilarious, spouting film buff tidbits and parading around in a maid's uniform as the new hired help. Tommy's the broadest character, a surprising anchor in the midst of chaos, able to bury his past woes but mine it in sight gags.
This 1993 play aptly fits St. Louis Actors' Studio's theme for its seventh season, "Sins of the Father," and director Milton Zoth's staging is shrewd in the intimate black box setting of The Gaslight Theatre. The crazy whirlwind inside the home is the flip side of '60s wholesome family sitcoms, and Zoth fluidly moves the characters as they desperately connect or tragically disconnect in this downward spiral trajectory.
Charlie Chaplin once remarked that tragedy was life in close-up, comedy was life in longshot. Here, they mingle for effective results. "Pterodactyls" is a gut-punch, a bold portrait of an all-American family living lies on the outside, but unable to face the truth on the inside. Twenty years later, it remains a harsh, hard-hitting reflection.
When: through Nov. 24; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays
Where: The Gaslight Theater, 358 N. Boyle Ave., St. Louis
Tickets: Adults $30; students (with a valid ID) and seniors (65-plus) $25
How: Ticketmaster.com; 800-982-2787; or at the theater box office one hour prior to performances.