THE REINDEER BITERS
By Jussi Wahlgren
Directed by Glyn O'Malley
The Luminous Group and Finlandia Theatre
Grove Street Playhouse
39 Grove Street
Equity showcase (closes March 5)
Review by Doug DeVita
There seems to be a trend lately to cram as much information as possible into as little time as possible. Strong dramatic reasoning is sacrificed while sketchily drawn characters expose, expose, and expose, suddenly resolving everything quickly and unconvincingly. Such was the problem with the recent Stella's Sanctuary Bar, and now Jussi Wahlgren's ambitious black comedy The Reindeer Biters.
In fact, exposition is working overtime and on several levels in Wahlgren's bleak look into the lives of five dysfunctional Finnish professionals. Patrick Lindberg, a doctor at the University of Helsinki, is married to the dying Lea and is being supported in his research by Eva Damalski, an assistant professor who will sleep with just about anybody. Lea is having an affair with Patrick's best friend Johan, who is married to the surgeon Kristina, a frigid bitch who steals Patrick's research and with whom Patrick inexplicably wants to have an affair. In short, everyone is screwing everyone else, both figuratively and literally and often at the same time. But what should have been a darkly funny riff on male - female politics gets lost in a sea of overwritten background information, despicable characters, and inconsistent motivation.
Under Glyn O'Malley's uneven direction, the production had moments of cold power that hinted at the dark comic potential but ultimately was defeated by disruptive, awkwardly staged scene changes and two major pieces of miscasting. Michael Mendelson started out strong as Patrick, using his rich voice and presence to good effect, but he quickly deteriorated into a whining effete, his rage and frustration turned into hissy fits more appropriate to an episode of Will and Grace than the halls of academia. The attractive but strident Routh Chadwick made Kristina a voracious virago that not even a mother could love. Diane Landers (Lea) and Ed Moran (Johan), working valiantly, brought a spark of humanity to their one-dimensional roles. Only Mary Gilbert succeeded, bringing a freewheeling, ditzy, and remarkably forthright force to the slutty but clear-thinking Eva Damalski. Effortlessly playing to the strengths in her character while blithely ignoring the weaknesses in the script, she was a funny, marvelous delight, an aching reminder of what could have been had everything else been up to her level.
Physically, the production was of unusually high caliber. Rachel Carr and Austin Sanderon's elegant black, gray, and cream costumes were enhanced by Robert Hill's imaginative wooden box set, and David Gilman's sound design was terrific, setting just the right mood for each scene.Wendy Range's extraordinary lighting tied all of the elements together to give the evening a look of icy/hot beauty.
Wahlgren absolutely has his finger on the pulse of contemporary values, and The Reindeer Biters absolutely has potential. He might benefit from a look at Patrick Marber's recent Closer, a work to which The Reindeer Biters bears more than a superficial resemblance. Covering much the same territory, The Reindeer Biters, as it currently stands, lacks the clarity, depth, and precision that would make it the lacerating statement it wants to, needs to, and absolutely could be.