Imagine a personable, grimy, pancake makeup–smeared, cigar-chomping guy in a tank top, not unlike Tommy Lee Jones, outdoors on the porch of some trailer, playing cards with a grunting little guy in a cowboy hat but also with smeared makeup who makes up the rules as he goes, spies conspicuously on his opponent’s cards and goes into paroxysms of glee with his fraudulent victories. The “loser” — here named Big Bugs (Jim Turner) — is not angry at all. Nor does he appear to be drunk, though his nose is very red, from the clown makeup that he didn’t wash off. Rather, he’s bemused by the antics of the little victor, named Corky (Mark Fite). The pair comprises half of the quartet of the clowns named Two Headed Dog. Corky can only grunt (he’s nonetheless very expressive) because during his former stint as a rodeo clown he was gored in the head by a bull. Welcome to Clown Town City Limits. What sets Big Bugs into a rage isn’t Corky’s cheating but the very mention of Whistles (Craig Anton), a traditional clown in bright orange attire, a bulbous nose and frizzy hair, who gets all the bookings for kiddies’ birthday parties. The mere idea of Whistles sends Big Bugs down a fast track of fury, cursing like a loan shark in a David Mamet play; meanwhile, for reasons undisclosed yet sort of apparent, his peers (aside from Whistles) remain unemployed, and probably unemployable. The fourth is a cadaverous fellow named Adolph (Dave “Gruber” Allen), who looms around like a doorman making subtle, quizzical expressions at the absurd goings on around him. John Ferraro’s staging is on the red nose. Andy Paley’s original music (performed by Paley, Jeff Lass, Mike Bolger and Mike Uhler) offers beautifully understated accompaniment to this Beckettian no man’s land that features a ravishingly brilliant repartee (script by Joel Madison, Dale Goodson and Bob Rucker) between Big Bugs and Corky; Corky can’t resist insulting Big Jim: “You’re a piece of shit.” (These are the only words he’s capable of uttering.) With each volley, Big Jim responds with his own, each wrapped in an increasingly baroque story that culminates in rim-shot rhythm, with the words written in a fortune cookie or in skywriting, how the entire universe is declaring that it’s Corky who’s a piece of shit. Corky absorbs each return like a blow to his already damaged head yet can’t resist the automatic reply by employing the only wit he has at his disposal: “You’re a piece of shit.” And so it goes. As funny and pointless and circuitous as life on the margins — which, according to this show, is pretty much life in general.
Steven Allen Theater, 4773 Hollywood Blvd., L.A.; Sunday, July 26, 8 p.m.; then from September, first Sunday of every month, 8 p.m. (323) 666-4266, www.steveallentheater.com.