"I'm man's best friend. It's a thankless job," says pooch Brown Spot (Justin Okin) near the opening of Henry Murray's smart and sobering fantasia, Monkey Adored, which just opened at the Rogue Machine Theatre. To create an Orwellian Animal Farm blend of whimsy and despair, Murray uses anthropomorphic critters — a sexy kitty winkingly named Madeline Kahn (Amanda Mauer); cancer-suffering Elaine Ostrich (Jennifer Taub); a horny monkey, Sonny Bonobo (Edward Tournier); Penguinito, head waiter at Le Cafe Cafe (Ron Bottitta); and what might be called the protagonist, James Rat (Patrick Flanagan).
They couple with each other and then wonder why they can't quite connect. Sonny wipes his paws on doormat Brown Spot, who's masochistically smitten with him (very Tennessee Williams).
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Yet on the evolutionary chain, things took a dive when the apes descended into man, whom the play presupposes is destroying everything in and out of sight. At issue is scientific research of an antidote for radiation sickness, in preparation for a pending nuclear war. Sonny the monkey gets hauled by Man (a looming puppet) back to the lab to be further experimented on. In response, Rat plans a terrorist insurrection against the mortals, and poor loyal Brown Spot is on the spot with his mixed loyalties.
Murray is also the literary manager for this theater. Both this play and his former work (Treefall) reveal a strikingly original voice that agonizes over estrangement and cruelty — in this play with only a dash of sentimentality tempered by heaping spoonfuls of poeticism and wit.
John Perrin Flynn directs the crackling ensemble in a production that steadily picks up momentum. Part of the stasis comes from the time it takes to invest in Murray's fantastical world and ultimately somber ideas. Delightful costumes by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz and Dan Weingarten's magical, carnival lighting contribute to a sense of a colorful cartoon about the end of things. —Steven Leigh Morris
MONKEY ADORED | By Henry Murray | Rogue Machine Theatre, 5041 W. Pico Blvd., L.A. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. | Through Nov. 20 | (323) 930-0747 | roguemachinetheatre.com