Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Infestation"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi


by Payne Ratner

directed by Wesley Savick

Elwin … John Kuntz
Mother … Karen MacDonald
Leon … Michael Walker
Sheriff … Russell Lees

Boston Playwrights’ Theatre’s production of Payne Ratner’s black comedy INFESTATION will have departed by the time you read this; if Mr. Ratner had intended to wow us with his vision, he fell short of his goal, trotting out instead something far more Gray than Black. But the A.R.T.’s Karen MacDonald did turn in a fine, troubling performance --- troubling in several ways.

Elwin, a precocious lad, has returned to his mother’s house after a lengthy absence; he claims to have been abducted by aliens and subjected to mind-expanding experiments. Mother, meanwhile, has been entertaining a gentleman caller: Leon, a free-lance exterminator who claims that Mother’s house is infested with Something; hence his always coming to call. Elwin, upon meeting Leon, claims to know the man and tries to expose him; meanwhile, Leon worms his way into Mother’s heart --- but Love is not what he’s after (shades of NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, here). And then there’s the trunk of Elwin’s long-gone father, locked away in a secret room. Elwin and Leon each lay claim on the trunk’s contents but only Mother holds the key … who shall claim it? And should we have cared?

What started out as yet another dysfunctional comedy --- Elwin devouring pounds of fried chicken and Mother fussing and fretting in sitcom fashion --- soon painted itself into a corner and the only way out was for Mr. Ratner to lead us down, down, down into the darkness --- and we were still groping in the dark at play’s end. The early laughter that Mr. Ratner reaped dwindled to snickers, then faded to silence --- I couldn’t have been the only one thinking, Where is This All Leading To? I got the impression that Mr. Ratner started down one tunnel, grew bored or horrified, and chose another. Repeat. Repeat. His audience never did learn about Leon’s past or his obsession with the trunk; the man showed pedophilic tendencies in his wanting to probe Elwin’s body for bug infestations, then rejected the lad right when he had him where he wanted him; and Elwin mounted Mother in the dark (she thought he was Leon!) to do his own colonization and to claim the key to that trunk. Again I ask, should we have cared?

You may say, “But INFESTATION is a black comedy --- it’s supposed to be weird!” Yes, but the true spirit of Comedy --- whatever its color --- is life-affirming despite its anarchic nature; if you compare INFESTATION with liberating black comedies like Joe Orton’s LOOT, Bruce Jay Friedman’s SCUBA DUBA, John Guare’s THE HOUSE OF BLUE LEAVES, or the recent SHEL’S SHORTS at the now-defunct Market Theater, you’d see how timid (and deathly) it is. If you’re going to tear down some cherished establishment, you’ve got to erect something just as solid in its place, whatever that something might be (you’re tapping into your audience’s fantasies as well as your own, remember) --- and having a strong-enough plotline doesn’t hurt, either. But INFESTATION only wandered, and it numbed and depressed me --- had bugs started to swarm out of the woodwork or if Leon was revealed to be a giant roach himself, the play would have jolted to sudden life; at the very least, it would have become THEATRICAL. But….no dice. (If a playwright gets lost, what can his audience do?)

I could be wrong --- INFESTATION may indeed be brilliant; if so, then the Boston Playwright’s production failed to do it justice. Director Wesley Savick wrapped a thick layer of cotton around Mr. Ratner’s play lest its sharp edges prove too dangerous to handle; he was backed up by Richard Chambers’ eerie American Gothic set design, more of a pink-and-lime tomb than a farmhouse (Coyote Theatre’s set design for its recent HOUSE OF YES was along similar lines ­ but it also had a better play to work with). Mr. Charmber’s sharp, tight angles also proved a disadvantage: during the numerous blackouts, you could see the doors swinging open and actors and set crew entering and exiting; their silhouettes flashed for an instant in the offstage blue light. (“There goes Karen … here comes John … bless this bed I lie upon….”)

I have only seen Karen MacDonald onstage twice before --- each time, in a Shakespeare play, for which she was ill-suited (she has a limited declaming voice and tends to shout) --- here, in a contemporary one, Ms. MacDonald gave a magnificent performance as Mother, both girlish and slatternly, displaying endless insights and a warm, engaging personality (I found myself watching her even when she was off to the side, doing nothing); I can now see why she is considered one of Boston’s finest actresses --- though I sense drama, not comedy, comes more easily to her. The irony is Ms. MacDonald proved to be TOO good for Mr. Savick’s production: some plays are sow’s ears and should be played as such, but Ms. MacDonald did her damnedest to turn INFESTATION into a silk purse and, bless her, she did, punching her cartoon character into a three-dimensional human being. But by doing so, Ms. MacDonald and her director led the play out of the quirky and into the neurotic --- what real-life mother would lock her child in a closet to suffocate because she’s convinced he contains an unhatched colony of ravenous, flesh-eating insects, and then expect to draw laughter for her deed? And what sort of woman would fail to realize --- even in the dark --- that the body mounting her is not her middle-aged lover but her own son? Had INFESTATION been played as a sort of cold puppet show, a grim good time may have come out of it, but the more Ms. MacDonald made me care about her Mother --- and she did --- the more I longed to flee out into the rainy, rainy night…. Still, taken out of context, Ms. MacDonald did turn in one of the year’s best performances. (BAD SEED, anyone? With Ms. MacDonald as the anguished mother and Eliza Rose Fichter as her murderous child?)

On the other hand, John Kuntz was right on target as Elwin: stunted and unlovable and FUNNY because he WAS so cartoonish (a Kuntz speciality) and he also excelled as a cooing/ranting Irish priest; but he and Michael Walker (a sly, hulking Leon) also succumbed to and grew dull by Mr. Savick’s hush-hush, there-there approach. (Mr. Walker bears such a striking resemblance to Hermann Goering in the Bugs Bunny cartoon HERR MEETS HARE (1945) that when he and Mr. Kuntz embraced and kissed, I would have loved to see them waltz around the stage to “Wiener Blut”, but….sigh.) Russell Lees, though silent, scored the evening’s biggest laugh as the Sheriff, summoned by Elwin to arrest Leon for whatever reason, only to drop dead within seconds of his entrance --- a clever bit, and a hint of what INFESTATION could have been had Mr. Ratner chosen a broader canvas and not a wee corner to paint in.

"Infestation" (19-29 September)
949 Commonwealth Avenue, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 358-7529

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide