Dystopia regained


By Penn Jillette
Directed by Mike Wills
Currican Theatre (736-2533)
154 West 29th St. (open-ended run)
Review by John Michael Koroly

It's unfair to categorize Penn Jillette merely as half of the Penn & Teller magic team. His bio lists extensive writing and acting credits and his new play, Recreation, is definitely the work of someone whose dark imagination is very much at home in a theatre.

A hyper-Brechtian opening to the play has actor Andrew Totolos introduce himself to us as himself and the other two actors as themselves, before deconstructing the play so the audience can understand it and why Jillette wrote it. We then meet James, the central character identified as ``a dreamer'' in the program. While flirting with a topless dancer, his mind strays into three different nightmarish fantasies. What emerges is sort of a dystopic Our Town.

The first fantasy sequence has him a kidnap victim of two bikers who force him to perform pratfalls they film and send to ``America's Funniest Home Videos.'' Next, he's a scientist engaging in a physics experiment that uses a human subject because animal-rights activists have precluded using a cat. And, finally, he's a possible murderer who's tricked a woman into a secluded area.

Jillette is at his mordant best when finding the logic in absurdity: such as the blackly hilarious scene where the possible murder victim debates with her potential killer on theoretical points. And there is a sequence involving an animal-rights activist rationalizing human experimentation that draws blood with its switchblade-sharp satire. Jillette has taken the infatuations (heavy metal, esoteric science) and targets (liberal hypocrisy, bluenosed puritanism) always so evident in his act with Teller and used them in an inventively theatrical way. Jillette and director Mike Wills also seem to be operating on the same frequency. Wills has just the right eccentric visual touch to serve Jillette's text. He achieves quite a number of otherworldly moments that come at the viewer from an odd angle. And he gets generally Good work from the cast. As James, Dean Bradshaw suggests a portly Al Yankovic and eerily evokes menace out of a nebbishy veneer. Andrew Totolos was very funny in several roles ranging from a sadistic biker to an anal-retentive jogger. Kelly McShain had mixed success in her spectrum of characters. She rather lazily relied on a cliched slacker dialect for a couple of roles but was riveting as the would-be victim in the last fantasy and radiated an enigmatic aura as the dancer.

Mark Symczak's set consisted of three folding chairs, a black cube (used very resourcefully) and the sudden appearance of car headlights. The uncredited costumes ranged nicely from nervy to grungy chic. And Michael Gottlieb's lighting design hit the dramatic target again and again with evocations of Hell and Paradise.

Jillette can he faulted just a bit for writing too much in his own voice. At points, one can almost hear his own pear-shaped baritone delivering many of the lines from various characters. But he's got a distinct, unique theatrical vision and his future work should be looked for eagerly by anyone hoping for edgy, jolting satire.

Box Score:
Writing 2
Directing 2
Acting 1
Set 1
Costumes 1
Lighting/Sound 2
Copyright 1996 John Michael Koroly

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