It's not hard to guess why suburbs and the people who live in them have been and continue to be the butt of so many jokes. Designed to mimic the weekend lifestyles of the rich, suburbs initially were enclaves of mostly white families who didn't speak with their neighbors, kept women isolated in their well-scrubbed kitchens, and ignored environmental issues created by polluting lawn mowers, tons of weed & feed, and now, hulking SUVs. But if suburbia is the antithesis of everything that has value in life, why the hell are so many people living there?
This question piques the interest of aliens in Tales of the Lost Formicans, a delightfully off-center play by Constance Congdon that's now being given a zestful production by Convergence-Continuum. Using multiple playing areas, a large video screen, and a small monitor, restlessly inventive director Clyde Simon smoothly slaloms through myriad scenes depicting the numb, unrelenting despair faced by Humanus americanus. But amazingly, the production is never downbeat or depressive -- we sympathize with the trapped souls even as we rue their dead-end existence.
Perhaps one saving grace is that the lead alien who narrates this piece (performed with a stoned, HAL-like synthetic warmth by Arthur Grothe) is pretty much as dumb as a brick himself. With all the nuanced perception of Donald Rumsfeld analyzing Iraqi culture, the chief Formican is continually puzzled by observed behavior and even a bit flummoxed by the design of a dinette set, noting that the wobbly table and chairs must indicate the unreliable nature of the planet's existence.
The extraterrestrials focus their attentions on Cathy, a big-city girl, who is in the process of sweeping Eric, her sullen and profane teenage son (Robert A. Walker, who drops F-bombs with the best of them), off to her parents' home in a cookie-cutter subdivision. Once there, Cathy finds her dad, a construction foreman named Jim, laboring under the combined pressures of losing a job, losing his memory, and having his coffee stolen by the aliens for lab tests. Meanwhile, Evelyn, her high-strung mom, sensing that everything is falling apart, wants to start traveling -- and not stop "until all the pieces are back together." Along the way, Cathy learns that a neighbor recently committed suicide, and that she's rather drawn to Jerry (Geoffrey Hoffman), a paranoid young man who thinks there are aliens about, and gal-pal Judy (Christine McBurney), with whom she shares general malaise, dating agonies, and a joint.
Each of the performances is crisp and distinct, but all merge deftly into director Simon's overall style, swerving between parody and earnestness, but never overdoing either. As Jim and Evelyn, Wes Shofner and Lucy Bredeson-Smith snare every tic of traumatized middle-class hell. In the centerpiece role of Cathy, Amy Bistok is simple, direct, and convincing, even when she's involved in some unusual activities (Judy's revenge vandalism -- by propane torches -- of a Corvette). All in all, the Formicans won't explain suburban anomie in any detail, but they do provide a rich evening of highly theatrical stimulation.