- Emma (Jovana Batkovic) can't help but feel the love from daddy Arthur (Wes Shofner).
Just as shellfish have unique effects on every digestive system, each person has his own response to dark comedies about fractured families made up of determinedly zany individuals. These theatrical exercises have been the rage for years, but it's incumbent upon a contemporary playwright to contribute something more than a gift for conjuring combinations of absurdly atypical people who happen to share the same name or domicile.
Indeed, when the point of no return is reached, it may be difficult to encounter another superficially written character who's a paranoid, sexually confused alcoholic without feeling a touch of acid reflux. Pterodactyls, by Nicky Silver, now being presented by Convergence-Continuum, is a prime example of the clever writing, free-form characterization, and blunt symbolism that mark plays of this genre. Intent on putting the "unction" in dysfunction, Silver performs a ritual sacrament for the death of the modern upscale family in America. But much of the work rings hollow, despite a crisp and generally polished production by the Tremont troupe.
The family in question, the Duncans (a bunch of yo-yos?), are actively engaged in destroying each other while maintaining their upper-crust appearances. The mother, Grace, is a part-time shopper and full-time boozer, with a mean drunk's ability to lash out at any bystanders with her withering put-downs. Her daughter, Emma, ate a shoe when she was a little girl and hasn't been right since, forgetting everything that happens, suffering from leg cramps, and believing that she's wearing the too-tight skin of a young child. But things have been looking up for her since she met Tommy McKorckle, an irony-challenged waiter at Salad City ("We serve salads, mostly," he explains earnestly), who has fallen for Emma, since his arm spasms seem to resonate harmonically with her leg ailments.
Into this familial frying pan drops brother Todd, who's been away for a long time, busily working out his personal issues by engaging in every known gay sex act with casual acquaintances. Of course, he now has AIDS and has returned to the family fold -- although, given their roiling problems, it's never clear why. The father, Arthur, a bank president (you didn't see that one coming, did you?), is distant and distracted, calling Todd "Buzz" and confusing his son's history with his own. There's more: Apparently, Arthur had been molesting Emma when she was younger. And Grace, in a snit because her maid disappeared, makes Tommy dress up in a maid's uniform, dust, and prepare meals. And cross-dressed Tommy is seduced by Todd. And Todd is hauling bones in from the backyard and reconstructing the dinosaur of the title in the living room, ground zero for doomed creatures of all kinds.
If you can get past that enormous chunk of symbolism, along with the myriad eccentricities afoot, there are many moments in this production that work -- thanks in large measure to director Clyde Simon's brisk pacing and some intriguing performances. As the lush Grace, Lauri Hammer hits precisely the right notes, ruling this demented roost with the fierce monomania of a control freak on monkey-gland steroids. But in the second act, after tragedy strikes, Hammer's Grace dissolves into a shadow of her former self and becomes almost sympathetic. Jovana Batkovic is also excellent as the tormented Emma, first lusting after Tommy and then becoming hilariously yet affectingly bewildered, as her man dedicates himself to serving her mother and smooching her brother.
Jd Bowman plays Tommy with some of the unfortunate affectation seen in the spelling of his name, trying too hard at times to be loopy. He's much better when he downplays his character's clearly demonstrated neurotic proclivities. In the smaller role of Arthur, Wes Shofner never seems quite credible as a well-to-do executive, in his lumpy suit and scuffed shoes, so his confrontations with family members lack the necessary heft. Serving as narrator of sorts and straight man for this tangled web of weirdos is Brian Breth as Todd, who launches the evening with a fanciful history of the world and the origin of countries ("Some people liked Africa, stayed there, and became black"). Breth is solid and sensible, but the script keeps Todd at arm's length, so that we never appreciate his motivation for trying to assemble the bones of the endangered species surrounding him.
No doubt playwright Silver has some interesting thoughts about the folly and transience of life, but his fondness for taking the cute line over telling but less showy character interaction undermines any chance at truly edgy satire. What we are left with is a production with many laughs, followed by a shrug.