With just a slight change in tone, Jack Dowd's Invasion of the Brat from Hell could be a drama that reveals the underbelly of broken families, suburban living, and the effects of drinking and drug use on teenagers. But in this family, the father, Donald (Garret Lambert), is clueless; the mother, Honor (Ingrid Spangler), is shallow and image-conscious, leaving stepbrothers Bradley (Randall McFadden) and Jesse (Ben Gassman) as the relatively normal protagonists. Or as normal as teenage boys can get.
The opening scenes, which expose the family structure -- whose son is whose, who thinks what of whose former spouse -- are essentially prologue. "Brat from hell" is what Honor calls Jesse, Donald's loud, rude, obnoxious son, who shows up unexpectedly. Bradley is Honor's son, and such opposites haven't been seen since Goofus and Gallant. But there's a method to Jesse's madness, and Bradley is quite the prig. Conveniently, Donald and Honor are off to a dinner party -- let the games begin!
Of course it's the interaction of the two boys that's the meat of the play, and while no new ground is broken, the stories they tell and the confidences they share (both overtly and indirectly) show two young guys navigating the world around them with varying degrees of success. Some of it is specific -- Bradley's room is where Jesse lived until his mother divorced Donald -- and some of it is testing how far one can push the other (Jesse tips the pizza delivery man $10 of Bradley's money). Jesse talks a lot, and Bradley has clearly never gotten to know anyone like him before. The relationship that transpires could, of course, only happen without parents present.
And don't forget sex. Jesse's gay, he says, and whether or not it's just a ruse to get a rise out of Bradley, a virgin, the result is that it does. Although it's not quite a consummation that was devoutly wished (and it skirts perilously close to incest), Jesse's reality is that it was "just a little bit of this and that" while Bradley is awed and panicked at having lost "it." Oh, and lots of beer was drunk as well. Typical teenage stuff.
Invasion of the Brat from Hell is not quite a coming-out comedy (or drama), but when it was successful it was because of a good piece of performing or some writing (and the two didn't always occur at the same time) that hit reality rather than a pose. Jesse has a riff on "gaydar" that was particularly funny, especially when Bradley's friend Paul (Jason Munt) drops by. Paul's just broken up with his girlfriend, and Jesse sees a Paul/Bradley coupling in the future. McFadden was most consistently good as Bradley, and quite believable as priggishness gave way to humanness. Gassman was more problematic, for while Jesse's obnoxiousness was appropriate, it was also tiring to watch and listen to (at high volume). Lambert, Spangler, and Munt served their functions well, but this was essentially McFadden and Gassman's show, and director John Capo gave them their head.
Scenic designer Nicole Frankel created a more than usually believable living-room set, well-lit by Martin Strenczewilk, whose sound design included the unexpectedly funny sound of Jesse's frequent (offstage) urination. The playwright clearly loves his main characters, and he has the good grace to keep the parents from reappearing once they leave. It's up to the prig and the brat to make their peace, and they deserve to enjoy it undisturbed.
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Copyright 2002 David Mackler