Backyard wrestling – the emulation of the aggressive antics of professional wrestlers by ordinary folk – serves as the point of departure for Mickey Birnbaum's funny, frenzied, probing play, Backyard.
It begins with two teenagers, Chuck (Ian Bamberg) and Ray (Adan Rocha), meeting in Chuck's backyard to work out a series of fake wrestling matches for which they are planning to charge admission. Fans of comic book heroes, the boys have adopted cartoon personas and a storyline to accompany their performance: The dominant Chuck is the “Destroyer” while the more accommodating Ray is the “King of Tears.”
Deceptively straightforward at the start, the story becomes increasingly complex as additional characters are introduced, beginning with Chuck's mom Carrie (Jacqueline Wright), a fierce and tenacious woman as caught up in the boys' bizarre bellicose fantasy as they themselves. It grows even more intense with the unanticipated appearance of Chuck's long-absent father Ted (Hugo Armstrong), a sly drug-taker who utilizes his paternal maleness to manipulate his son's loyalty away from his hostile angry wife. Ted immediately insinuates himself into the “Destroyer's” universe so that soon both parents, along with Chuck's tomboyish girlfriend Lilith (Esmer Kazvinova) are acting out vengeful passions both within and outside the framework of a comic book plot. Meanwhile, the essentially gentle Ray wrestles with identity issues and ambivalent feelings for his Dad (Richard Azurdia), a former Mexican wrestler who specialized in losing.
Already packing a wallop, Birnbaum's gritty script showcases a blue chip ensemble and brilliant fight choreography (Ahmed Best) that come together under Larry Biederman's illuminating directorial eye. Nothing is quite so satisfying as theater filled with surprise, and this dark comedy has that. It carries you to places you never thought you'd visit.
Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village; through July 13. (310) 307-3753, EchoTheaterCompany.com.