Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Oliver Parker!

Photo/The Shaltzes

Growing up, "fuck" was a shocking word--especially from a child--and flipping someone the bird was actually a pretty offensive thing. But as the years went by, this constant over-punctuation took its toll, arguably reducing the English language, and certainly taking the sting out of an otherwise effective retort. Such is the case with Elizabeth Meriwether's overwritten new play, Oliver Parker! While it starts out as a breathtakingly original play, energetically directed by Evan Cabnet, once we grow acclimated to the quirks of the language and characters, reality (or the lack thereof) sets in. Though Lauren Halpern's terrifically trash-cluttered set and the cast's hyperactively barbed performances hint that there's something worthwhile under the surface, the play contentedly remains a comic mess, as if its own brokenness might somehow reveal something about its characters'.

And yet, though Oliver Parker! might not go anywhere, it's guiltily enjoyable, especially when Meriwether keeps the relationships light and without definition. Jasper (John Larroquette) spends most of the first scene slumped in a chair ("Santa Claus on heroin"); he eats pie with his hands because he's too lazy to get a fork, he doesn't wear shoes anymore because he didn't have any paper towels and yet needed to dispose of his dead cat (which, hungry--and perhaps suicidal--found its way into the Draino). His status as a war veteran perhaps explains his emotional state, which swings from the depressed minimal ("I'm contemporary. [long beat] Contemporary casual.") to the fiercely deranged ("I like to wreck stuff").

He's well-contrasted by the suave, tuxedo-wearing Oliver (Michael Zegen), who rationally attempts to take care of the man, while at the same time relishing his power. But as Jasper coyly tries to get Oliver to accept a self-help book (he's been watching a lot of Lifetime, which he feels is being beamed directly into his brain), and Oliver goes into his own fit, calmed only by pretending to be a dead cockroach, it becomes clearer that their relationship is something more than that of the spoiled young know-it-all and the rotted old do-nothing. Unfortunately, their relationship is damaged in exactly the way that you'd expect, even if their means of dealing with that baggage is new. (If That Face had not also just opened, these twisted ways of coping might seem even stronger, although Albee's The Goat comes to mind, too.)

Holding up less well are Meriwether's secondary characters--not because they're badly acted, but because they don't even have a strong and skewed relationship to cling to. Johanna Day is magnificently addled as a grieving mother, Willa Cross--so much so that we can understand her sneaking off with the filthy rich and criminally young Oliver in order to score some secretive self-medication from his pharmaceutical father. But the fact that she's also a US Senator makes it less likely that she'd risk scandal so directly, especially after her first encounter with Oliver ends with him in nothing but his underwear and a skeleton mask: "Touch my bones." The same goes for Monica Raymund, who is perfectly poised as Cross's aide (attempting to smooth things over); when Jasper mistakenly identifies her as a hooker hired by Oliver, she's so businesslike that it takes her a while to even register the implication, and when she does, her retort is the hilarious "I have a Blackberry!" But when she suddenly sheds her professionalism, swayed by a sickening story, she, too, becomes a flimsy character--there to amuse us, perhaps, or to see just how far our screwed-up heroes will take things, but not a living, breathing character.

And this is where Oliver Parker! ends up, lost in meaningless antics and throwaway jokes. Jasper tells a poignant story about his limo driving days, concluding--after flirting with a transvestite--that "I don't know what anything is any more." Perhaps that's the mood Meriwether wants for her play, then: a broken world in which things that shouldn't happen nonetheless happen, and it's an admirable effort. At best, then, she's showing a coping mechanism for which the mechanics are all too obvious, especially when they get bogged down in the lazy melodramatic flourishes of the final scene. Given the subject matter, Oliver Parker! pulls off a neat trick in that we don't leave the theater hating any of the characters; however, we don't leave the theater feeling anything for them, either.

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