Burning Down the House
From the start of his sometimes clumsy yet riveting 1997 thriller, Chimps, playwright Simon Block has it in for his central character. Young dolt Mark (Shawn Lee) has quit his job delivering mail to create a childrens book based on the alphabet, with each page comprised of a letter and a baroque illustration. Mark is speculating that the profits from his kiddie book will hold up his lagging end of the finances in his domestic partnership with girlfriend Stevie (Sara Hennessy). But first he has to finish the book, and Mark is notoriously slow in every aspect of his life. (That hes quite literally banking, at Stevies expense, on selling his childrens book tells you all you need to know.) Marks two ornate renderings on cardboard, perched conspicuously on a bookshelf A is for Armadillo, B is for Bunny stand as a rim-shot testament to all hes accomplished in the past several weeks only 24 letters to go.
Stevie spends most of the play fuming at Mark that he leaves her laundry to fester on the clothesline while shes at work, that he keeps refusing to take paying jobs. Pregnant with his child, Stevie pays their mortgage and all their other bills. Shes neither impressed nor beguiled by Marks excruciating-to-behold creative process. When I come home and see you drawing on your hands and knees, in your underwear, I just want to put my fist through a wall, she remarks dryly.
Hennessys preponderance of fury-laced lines could easily render her a shrew, but she downplays her barbs with a consistently muted exasperation that anchors Stevie as the one character we can trust. Shes the grownup and Mark is off somewhere, crayons in hand, circling Pluto. The cumulative effect is less a battle of ideas than a judgment an open-and-shut condemnation of Marks prolonged adolescence and hang-dog solipsism, and an affirmation of Stevies eagle-eyed pragmatism an amusing comedy sketch dressed up as a drama.
Block has made a name for himself in London, breaking onto the scene at the Royal Court Theatre in 1995 with his first play, Not a Game for Boys. Chimps, which premiered at Londons Hampstead Theatre Club, contains repartee filled with clipped, rhythmic repetitions that are custom designed for British cadences and sounds. Director Dámaso Rodriguezs decision to move it from an Anglo to an American suburb strands the actors on something of a linguistic raft floating somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic. Shakespeare easily leaps from London to the American Midwest because his language is so formalized. But with contemporary English dramatists writing in a realistic mode, the jump becomes considerably more treacherous. Furthermore, both Hennessy and Lee display almost no range because theres none written into their roles. Lee lumbers dutifully oxlike with perpetually wounded pride, while Hennessy keeps pecking at him.
Despite Rodriguezs honed, taut staging and Melissa Teohs impressive, Ikea-furnished set that details Mark and Stevies kitchen and living room with a backdrop of hanging architectural blueprints, watching these two starts to grow wearing, until the arrival of two traveling con-artist salesmen, Lawrence and Gabriel (Richard Hilton and Terrance Ellis, respectively).
Mark and Stevies partnership is on the brink of collapse at the plays start. Its no surprise then that Lawrence and Gabriel invited in by a gullible Mark should finish the job. Yet the way they do it the skill and psychological insight with which Block dramatizes high-pressure selling turns both the play and the production into a titillating exhibition of home invasion and domestic terrorism.
Lawrence and Gabriel, reeking with the same comically tinged menace as the two thugs in Harold Pinters early one-act, The Dumb Waiter, throw Mark and Stevies loyalty on the grill. The salesmen insist that the walls of the house are crumbling (not unlike the young couples future), supporting their assertion with bogus photos and pseudo science. The walls must be treated with Excote, they insist, or the house could be worthless tomorrow.
Because Mark made the executive decision to let them into the house, their presence is, for him, an endorsement of whatever dubious authority he possesses. Stevie, however, senses that burly Lawrence (a former poultry man, struggling to make a do-or-die commission) and reptilian Gabriel are not just a smarmy nuisance but are in fact sinister sipping coffee in her kitchen and turning the suitably named Mark against her with ruses and clubhouse misogyny, all in order to close a deal that will assure the young couple decades of poverty.
Hilton plays Lawrence like Larry King desperately auditioning for a new job and making ingratiating, off-color jokes. Whats the difference between a lawyer and a bucket of shit? he quips, not realizing that Marks brother is a lawyer The bucket. Lawrence has a daughter of his own, and his wobbling conviction to destroy this young family to close the sale provides, between the salesmen, a kind of parallel marriage as much on the rocks as that of the central couple.
Stevie entrusts Mark to boot them out. But what is trust? Obedience school? They offer Mark compliments, girders for his flimsy backbone and salves for his artistic insecurity. Though Mark betrays Stevie with one transparently stupid decision after another, the melodramatic power of the salesmens calculations gives the play a vicelike grip. And though the play would have a deeper reach if the visitors fraud werent so naked from the start, it contains a sizzling insight that extends from home repair to homeland security to foreign policy: If you want to close the sale, tell them that the sky is falling and that immediate action is imperative.
CHIMPS | By SIMON BLOCK | Presented by FURIOUS THEATER COMPANY, 965 N. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena Through May 25
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