- Clyde Simon's Augie is martini-perfect: Dry and straight up.
Theater in the summertime can be like a Hawaiian shirt: lightweight, colorful, and something you wouldn't want to be seen in during any of the other three seasons. That's why theater groups that produce shows in these drippy, sweltering months usually opt for frothy musicals and comedies, brain Popsicles that won't tax the average playgoer's heat-addled attention span. Well, if you can't gag down another sugary root-beer float and are ready for some spicy, inspired entertainment, there's a real treat awaiting at the Liminis, where José Rivera's Each Day Dies With Sleep is being staged by the boundary-stretching Convergence-Continuum group.
Exploring the thin membrane that separates rational everyday life from the primitive and ghastly urges lying just under the surface, Rivera animates the tension between the civilized and the bestial -- all while writing in such a droll manner that the work plays like a dark, gothic comedy. By blending mundane events with fantastic and nightmarish images, the playwright creates a heightened reality for a self-flagellating family headed by Augie, the ultimate daddy from hell. Augie is a sex-obsessed middle-aged slacker who lives in an ever-expanding house with his 21 kids, a corpulent wife who won't (or can't) get out of bed, and wild animals roaming the halls. Anchoring this squalid home is Augie's apparently handicapped daughter, Nelly -- Augie calls her Pinhead, since he can't remember her name -- an 18-year-old who spends her days sorting socks and cowering before Pop's paranoid tirades over Drano in his coffee and other supposed conspiracies.
Soon, this daddy-daughter duo is joined by sexy and self-absorbed Johnny, a hardbody neighborhood car mechanic who has porked any number of Nellie's sisters and has filled the place with offspring. As he explains to Nelly, "Sure I knocked up all your sisters. What can I say, I love this family!" But what Johnny really wants is Nelly, and before you can say "magical realism," she and Johnny have escaped Augie's clutches and moved across the country to own a chain of hip, star-magnet car-repair shops in California. Once there, newly confident Nelly loses her stammer and her twitching leg, and Johnny begins planning a career as a male model. However, time and distance are no protection from the beast, embodied by the carnally conniving Augie, who's no further away from Nelly than her next heartbeat.
All this weirdness seems strangely logical in the playing, and it's surprisingly funny throughout, even in times of maximum stress. At one point, Nelly confronts Augie about his nonexistent parenting skills: "Three of your kids can't speak. You never taught them how and then decided they were just shy!" Meanwhile, Johnny is always looking for new ways to stimulate his libido, asking Nelly to "tie me to the hood of the red T-bird and lick me till I'm senseless." After Augie is injured in a car accident and is wheelchair-bound, his dutiful daughter moves him to L.A., where he helps with the business, but is still no happier. "Jack Nicholson was snotty to me today," he pouts, as he plots how to get over on his hated son-in-law and reestablish his dominance over Nelly.
In a production that is superb in all respects, the Convergence-Continuum actors shine brightest. Clyde Simon, the troupe's artistic director, plays Augie with sure-handed style -- whipping, whining, and wheedling to keep his daughter under his thumb. His deadpan delivery of Rivera's funniest lines is martini-perfect: dry and straight up. The challenging role of Nelly is handled with urgent passion by Lara Mielcarek, showing her character's evolution from the scuttling creature in her father's house to the slick La-la-land businesswoman. And Geoff Hoffman preens peerlessly as Johnny, a man so sexually irresistible that cuckolded husbands in California burn him in effigy along the highways. Thanks to their crisp performances, this tight ensemble generates enough crackling sexual energy to equal the output of an Illuminating Company substation, along with just as much tension and dread once Augie takes his revenge.
Director Joshua E. Spencer skillfully navigates Rivera's absorbing script and uses the talents of his technical crew to maximum effect. The lighting design by Angie Wilt and Kalliope Vlahos is innovative, often using small stage-mounted spots to envelop the cast in dramatic shadows. The set, created by Spencer and Simon, uses almost every square inch of the tiny stage and gives the arm's-length-away audience a real eyeful.
So let's put it this way: If you've got a functioning phone and car, you've got no damn excuse to miss this show. You'll need the phone for reservations, since there are fewer than 40 seats in this Lilliputian theater. And you'll need the car to get you and your Hawaiian shirt over to Scranton Road, for a theatrical summer dish as tart and bracing as a lip-puckering Key lime pie.