There’s a wickedly disarming ratiocination at work in The Mongoose, Will Arbery’s sprawling and crackingly funny black comedy that is making its world premiere at Road Theatre Company. It’s the kind of disorienting, off-kilter logic that one typically experiences in dreams, in-patient psychiatric facilities or in any pathological relationship where unpleasant truths are couched in the kind of everyday evasions that, unchecked by outside reality, can coalesce into a hermetic mythology of surreal proportion.
And relationships don’t get more evasive or pathological than in the haplessly dysfunctional middle-class family whose stability is already in free-fall at the start of Arbery’s story. That’s because Leanne (Blaire Chandler), the family’s depressive matriarch, has walked out of her marriage and abandoned her teenaged brood to the care of Cole (Dirk Etchison), their ineffectual and psychically shell-shocked father, who wanly explains the absence by saying she's “off selling knives in New Orleans.”
With Leanne away and the passive Cole incapable of parenting, the job of maintaining the fractious clan’s equilibrium falls to levelheaded but overwhelmed second daughter Kay Bailey (Arielle Fodor). But that’s not so easy when it comes to controlling an overweight and violent sociopath of a brother, Joe (the fine Kevin Shipp), and the peculiarly maladjusted sister Maddy (an antic Hannah Mae Sturges), who turns for maternal sustenance to Jeff, the talking (but never seen or heard) 300-year-old Indian mongoose living inside the house’s walls.
As Leanne withdraws first from the home and then disappears altogether, the play quickly transits from commonplace family strife to increasingly grotesque and preposterous fantasy. Arbery’s genius is his ability to straddle a point of view both inside and outside the family’s fractured emotional logic. The question of Jeff’s implausible existence drives the momentum even as his reality begins to take on a desirably redemptive possibility: Is he a figment of Maddy’s unhealthy imagination or is he actually the creature of godlike wisdom and unconditional love that first she and then the rest of the family come to believe?
All that changes in act two when Arbery abruptly pulls out rug out and the story takes a hard left, leapfrogging forward in time. Here Arbery begins to slyly invert the moral polarity of all that came before. To say more about the “plot” would only spoil what emerges as one of The Mongoose’s chief delights: its wealth of surprise revelations. Every time you think you've zeroed in and there's no place left for the story to go, Arbery reveals an even farther-off and more outlandish horizon. Fodor is superb as Kay Bailey, the play’s bedrock of common-sense reality, whose stubborn disbelief is eventually unmasked as merely another manifestation of the family’s collective trauma. And Michael Dempsy provides hilarious support as Dave, Cole’s newfound friend who may or may not have triggered the crisis in the first place.
Throughout it all, director Michael Thomas-Visgar’s masterful staging (on Chad Dellinger’s seamy kitchen and living room set) keeps all of the story’s ricocheting ironies in play while Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski’s sound and Derrick McDaniel’s lights provide effective transitions and moody counterpoint.
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