``Ro-dents speaking in tongues''

The Exterminator

By Robert Alan Margolis
Directed by Liza Williams
The Milagro Theatre Co.
Angel Orensanz Foundation
Equity showcase (closed)
Review by John Chatterton

Mr. Margolis bills his play as an ``absurdist tragedy,'' fighting words for someone brought up in an era when Absurdism was the latest thing. True, it is hard to make a traditional critique of an absurdist play, because the author can always claim that it defies logic.

But that's not the point of Absurdism anyway: in all the great milestones of the movement (The Chairs, Waiting for Godot, much of Pinter) something is happening. There is a story, a situation -- however fanciful -- with its own logic.

The movement has languished in America. Albee forsook it; Shepard's efforts tend toward the opaquely personal. It seems to have been a movement more fitted to the despair of Europe after World War II. Nobody knows what troubles the Absurdist has seen, certainly not the comparatively adolescent American playwright.

The Exterminator brings together a young couple (Tom Hughes as Benjie and Michelle Daimer as Samantha) and Benjie's parents (Harry and Daisy, played by Jim Christopher and Roberta Pikser). Samantha and Benjie met that day and decided to get married, after Samantha found that he was the first man to cause her to lubricate. After they fornicate on the kitchen table, watched by Mom and Dad, Benjie casually beats up Dad.

Benjie's parents have been collecting dead cats, killed in the plague, and hanging them from the rafters. The Exterminator, played with blandly sinister mien by D. Zhonzinsky, enters. After playing parlor games (including hide-the-salami) they gas Samantha, the Exterminator kills Mom, Benjie kills Dad, and the Exterminator and Benjie are left alone to fight it out.

The down side of Margolis's play is his deliberate chop-logic in the ordering of events. All the absurdist clichés are there, without the underlying (usually comic) situation to drive them: the sudden changes of dramatic gear and tone; the switching of partners in a game of dramatic musical chairs, to see what strange conversations each combination can come up with; the soliloquies on random subjects; the stifling parody of gov-speak. Various strands are woven together, including an ecodisastrous plague that indifferently kills cats and humans (good plague makeup!); a rabid, institutionalized anti-Semitism; flashbacks to scenes of childhood sexual abuse; Jews' denial of their own identity; and excuses from those who helped the Holocaust.

On the positive side, despite a feeling that the actors were working overtime to save a script that had gone astray, some entertaining moments stay behind: almost anything of the Executioner; a southern-Baptist tirade by Benjie; Benjie's lapse into Judaism, as he puts on a yarmulke and shawl and lights a menorah. Though why he sings about Little Boy Blue while he does so is anyone's guess.

David R. Gammons's set, a decaying basement apartment set in the basement of a decayed synagogue, was perfect, including the (real) sound of dripping water from a storm and the noise of rats in the walls (people walking around upstairs). Lighting was overpowered by a few high-wattage spots, when more and smaller instruments were called for. The Exterminator's costume, in radiation-yellow with stylish black trim, stole the show.

The play is memorable because it puts a stick into a compost heap and stirs it up. But then Margolis thrusts the audience's face in it. What makes the likes of Pinter still effective after all these years is that he occasionally lights a match to suggest a gruesome landscape-- then blows it out and leaves the rest to the imagination.

Box Score:
Writing 1
Directing 2
Acting 2
Set 2
Costumes 1
Lighting/Sound 1
Copyright 1997 John Chatterton

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