The Gorilla Theatre's Lobster sinks.

Brother's Creeper 

The Gorilla Theatre's Lobster sinks.

The top prize in the Gorilla Theatre's 2001 Inaugural Dramatist Festival went to Kato McNickle, whose To Die for Want of Lobster follows all the rules of conventional playwriting. A conflict and a cliffhanger end the first act. Characters aren't, at first, what they seem. There's even a gun, which would be a cliche if Americans weren't so gun-crazy. In between these requisite plot points, however, is a dull and pointless exercise in trendy nihilism.

McNickle's play opens on the cusp of a one-night stand. Jack (Bryan Colley) has picked up a blackjack dealer named Lena (Lesley Baker) at a casino. He's fresh out of a marriage and a job and is freeloading off his older sister, Barbara (Susan Glennemeier), who's not thrilled with Jack's intention to tryst on her futon. But in the author's many marriages of playwriting convenience, Barbara changes her mind a few lines later, setting up an eventual chain of blackmail, lawyers and murder. That she is a second-grade teacher is, like other details in the play, irrelevant.

What Barbara is is a doormat. Jack moves Lena in the next day -- again, to Barbara's initial refusal but eventual approval. (This is a woman whose "no" means "OK.") The play becomes a combination of the revenge fantasy Thelma and Louise and the lesbian film noir Bound without their wit, style or savvy. With the help of tequila, a threesome unfolds -- there's the hint of some offstage sexual asphyxiation -- that gives only Barbara a smidgen of guilt. Lena effectively shakes some of Barbara's priggishness out of her -- perhaps too much. The audience members aren't the only ones who will say, "Oh, brother."

Jack tries to smooth over the prickly repercussions in the second act. "It was a mistake," he admits at one point. When Barbara replies, "Some of it," he fears he's in over his head. A catfight, another gun and a vacuum cleaner figure in the elimination of the most expendable character, whose absence doesn't make anyone's heart grow fonder.

The play is directed competently by Tara Varney, who shows a knack for moving actors through this verbal pudding. Colley and Baker have a general idea of who their characters are supposed to be, and Glennemeier has a little more versatility than they do, but McNickle's script does them in. The presentation of kink isn't as automatically compelling as the author thinks, especially when it comes out of nowhere.

McNickle clearly wants Lena to represent one of those dramatic linchpins that enter strangers' lives and wreck them. That's achieved on the surface. But to mount one idea without a surplus of others isn't an accomplishment -- it's a first draft.

Postscript: Since the Broadway production of Edward Albee's disturbing, mesmerizing but completely original The Goat -- or Who Is Sylvia? closed earlier this month, it's now open season for the regional theaters that might have -- or think they have -- the balls to mount it.

For the uninitiated, Albee's play can be summarized all too easily. It's about a man who shatters his wife, his teen-age gay son and his best friend with the revelation that he has been having a carnal and emotional relationship with a sweet-eyed goat. But it's about much more: the destructive cancer of living with secrets; the resilience of bonds when they're violently tested; and the house of cards that is monogamy, among other adult themes.

I've seen it twice, and I was profoundly moved both times. Bill Pullman and Mercedes Ruehl originated the roles last spring and were subsequently replaced by Bill Irwin and Sally Field -- who made an amazing New York stage debut and may have given the performance of her career. Still talking about that performance hours later, a friend and I began debating what Kansas City theater would pick up the gauntlet thrown down by the play and who here should star. Could, would, should it be Gary Holcombe and Donna Thomason? Maybe, though Thomason would have to say the f-word more times in one night than she has in her entire career.

Would the Missouri Repertory Theatre's audience take to a play that, beyond much graphic talk about goat anatomy, includes a discussion of infants and erections in the same monologue? It appears not. "In discussions about next season, I know it has not come up," says Missouri Rep publicist Laura Muir, who adds that artistic director Peter Altman "has not seen it and has no plans to bring it to Missouri Rep in the near future."

That probably leaves it to the Unicorn, whose artistic director, Cynthia Levin, says she is indeed interested. "Yes, I've seen it and like it a lot," she says. "It's something we should do and could do well." I look for it on the Unicorn's 2003-'04 calendar.


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