There's a very funny, very short science fiction story by Terry Bisson that I first heard as a radio dialog, in which two alien spacefarers are passing near Earth. One describes the intelligent species below while the other can't believe what he's hearing. "They're meat?" he keeps repeating. "They have brains made out of meat? Thinking meat? You're asking me to believe in thinking meat?" They decide for the good of the other beings in the universe they'll just forget about Earth.
Carnality, in obvious and complex ways, unite the two plays currently on stage at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka: Beware the Man Eating Chicken by Henry Meyerson and The Goat or Who is Sylvia? by Edward Albee. Both plays are funny, one is also very dramatic, and neither is for the squeamish. Fans of theatre, even vegetarians, should make a hearty meal of this superlative evening.
Beware the Man Eating Chicken (I should warn you and my editor that the title is a pun not requiring a hyphen: It's about a man who eats a lot of chicken, and other meat) takes place in a chaotic low-rent living room, where the brassy Betty Smith (played by Kathleen Marshall) browbeats her sister Carole (Shelley Stewart) into assisting her get-rich-quick scheme of feeding her unseen son William (snarls and bellows by Sam Cord) to attain a weight sufficient to win the Las Vegas contest for fattest man on the planet.
Enter Captain Leonard (Anthony De Page), who tries to disrupt the process, and siblings Albert and Dorothy (Josh Kelly and Melanie A. Quillen), who own a chicken business and want to exploit a connection with William, currently devouring 20 chickens a day. Complications ensue: Think The Honeymooners meets Little Shop of Horrors.
Michael Thomas directs the eventful proceedings at a breakneck pace, which overcomes such incongruities as why a chicken company would really want to make the fattest man alive their logo. Such chinks in verisimilitude are beside the point -- the whole headlong romp is at best a thinly veiled allegory of predatory capitalism anyway. The characters are stereotypes but these actors play them with unflagging energy and conviction, and ring every ounce of legitimate theatricality out of them. The script is efficient yet quirky, as befits that almost lost form, the one act. The experience is satisfying, but the aftertaste of memory is apt to be about the comic performances.
This is the California premiere of Meyerson's play, which had its most prominent production at the 2004 New York International Fringe Festival. It's followed by a play that won the 2002 Tony Award on Broadway and had successful productions in Washington D.C. and San Francisco, by a playwright who has been internationally famous since the early 1960s: Edward Albee.
Yet the somewhat edgy absurdity and laugh-out-loud humor of Beware... efficiently sets up Albee's The Goat (which is a pun of another kind), since the release of laughter is important to its effect, and to Albee's characteristic interplay of charm and provocation.
But this play is different in almost every other way, beginning with the setting: an upper middle class dining room. Martin is a highly successful architect who is forced by the betrayal of his best friend Ross to tell his wife, Stevie, and their gay son, Billy, that he is having a love affair with a goat.
The kind of absurd and perverse humor inspired by Gene Wilder falling for a sheep in Woody Allen's Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex is an important element throughout this play, but it is hardly the only mood. There's family and personal tragedy and revelation, touches of awe and horror, and a mix of levels from midlife crisis to ultimate human issues in the patented Albee banter.
That this production effectively expresses such rapidly shifting and sometimes simultaneously opposite moods is due to director Michael Thomas' brilliant blocking and pacing, and to what he created with this exemplary cast that works so well together. James Read gives Martin both perplexity and clarity, helplessness and internal force. Shelley Stewart discards the dowdy sister in "Beware" to become the attractive, intelligent and passionate Stevie necessary to be convincing. Lincoln Mitchell (after a semi-deus ex machina walk-on in "Beware") plays the creepiness and the hard concern of the self-appointed friend. Sam Cord also excels as the gay teenage son who adds even more layers to the sexual tensions and carnal conundrums.
This is vintage Albee, uncompromising, with wit and complexity of character, dramatic weight and fearlessness seldom seen these days, when how we're supposed to feel about a character and think about a subject is typically prefabricated. This production serves and illuminates this play, which is the highest praise I can give it, other than to suggest that this is North Coast theatre at its best.
Coming Up: Ferndale Rep opens The Wild Guys, a comedy about a men's retreat by Canadian husband-and-wife team, Andrew Wreggitt and Rebecca Shaw, on Thursday (Jan. 29). But take heed: this production runs only three weekends, closing Feb. 15.