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 children’s 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 he’s quite literally banking, at Stevie’s expense, on selling his children’s book tells you all you need to know.) Mark’s 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 he’s 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 she’s at work, that he keeps refusing to take paying jobs. Pregnant with his child, Stevie pays their mortgage and all their other bills. She’s neither impressed nor beguiled by Mark’s 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.

Hennessy’s 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. She’s 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 Mark’s prolonged adolescence and hang-dog solipsism, and an affirmation of Stevie’s 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 London’s Hampstead Theatre Club, contains repartee filled with clipped, rhythmic repetitions that are custom designed for British cadences and sounds. Director Dámaso Rodriguez’s 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 there’s none written into their roles. Lee lumbers dutifully oxlike with perpetually wounded pride, while Hennessy keeps pecking at him.

Despite Rodriguez’s honed, taut staging and Melissa Teoh’s impressive, Ikea-furnished set that details Mark and Stevie’s 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 Stevie’s partnership is on the brink of collapse at the play’s start. It’s 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 Pinter’s early one-act, The Dumb Waiter, throw Mark and Stevie’s loyalty on the grill. The salesmen insist that the walls of the house are crumbling (not unlike the young couple’s 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. “What’s the difference between a lawyer and a bucket of shit?” he quips, not realizing that Mark’s 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 salesmen’s calculations gives the play a vicelike grip. And though the play would have a deeper reach if the visitors’ fraud weren’t 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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