A pet shop is an odd place for a noir score, and an even odder place for a bed placed just 10 feet away from a fish tank where two piranhas bob, awaiting their next meal. But the sleazy sax and inviting mattress are integral to Charles Ludlam's comic melodrama about animal salesman Chester Nurdiger (Rich Hutchman), his restless redhead wife, Roxanne (Bernadette Sullivan), and the handsome stranger (Michael Loomis) who's charmed his way into a hamster cage–leaning gig — and the missus' panties. He can't resist the way Roxanne wiggles her hips when she bends over to get feeder worms from the refrigerator. And he can't resist when she makes noises about killing Chester under the noses of Mama Nurdiger (Michael Halpin) and Officer Frankie (Brad David Reed). The Artificial Jungle is a well-done trifle about the selfishness of human animals, and under Randee Trabitz's direction it's a great showcase for his team. Sullivan plays the cuckolding wife like a cat clawing at the door for freedom. Halpin's big momma isn't a drag pratfall — she's the second coming of Lucille Ball down to the expressive, heavily mascara'd eyes. And Hutchman's doomed oaf is a fool for his wife, yet he's no dummy; Hutchman makes him at once irritating and ingratiating. When Loomis' seducer is struck by his conscience, the play borrows notes from Shakespeare's Macbeth and Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart — which here really should have been The Tell-Tale Talking Parrot. The intermission is unnecessary, but that's the only technical quibble when Keith Mitchell's cluttered set of creatures spills into the seats (there was a snake on my chair), Derrick McDaniel's lighting darkens at every dramatically raised eyebrow and prop designers Judy Heneghan and Andrea Hutchman have built rodent puppets that bone in a cage, both to amuse the audience during scene changes and so Mama Nurdiger will have an excuse to intone, “The rats are in heat.” Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Nov. 6. (323) 960-7863, plays411.com/jungle.
Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Starts: Sept. 17. Continues through Nov. 6, 2011
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