by David Lally · July 21, 2014
Nicky Silver’s Pterodactyls is not a new play. Actually it’s the first revival of one of his earliest works, his follow-up to his much lauded debut Fat Men in Skirts. More recently he has become synonymous with the Vineyard Theatre and Linda Lavin, who has starred in many of his plays, so I’m glad to see a theatre company revive one of his earliest pieces.
Pterodactyls was originally produced Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre in October 1993. Twenty-one years later The Strain Theatre Company does a remount. I love seeing established writers’ earlier works. Usually you get to see the rough edges as a young playwright tries out a lot of different things and throws a little bit of everything into the material. The first half plays like any sophisticated sitcom. The second half might remind you of some of Christopher Durang’s early work. It’s a credit to this production that it manages to balance the comedy, drama and absurdism as if this were the most natural thing on earth. After all, who doesn’t enjoy seeing a dinosaur slowly being built in the living room as the entire family that lives in the house is slowly being torn down?
Getting us off to a rollicking start is Roger Manix as Todd Duncan, who explains the complete history of the dinosaurs and in short, the world. He starts to lose his way when he realizes he forgot his notes so he has to wing it, accompanied by a very funny slide show. As the center of this play, playing the son who comes home with a burlap sack and an AIDS diagnosis, Roger has complete control of his character from start to finish. But the AIDS diagnosis is the least of this family’s problems.
With an emotionally distant and barely there husband and a daughter (Lori Kee) who keeps forgetting things and claims she’s repressing memories, not to mention her less-than-stellar choice for a fiancé (Jeremiah Maestas), a man whose sexuality is suspect and who works as a waiter and sleeps in a lean-to, there are bigger problems mounting in the Duncan home. It’s a wonder that matriarch Emma Duncan (Maggie Low) doesn’t drink more. But then of course she can’t, because somehow her maid Flo, has somehow disappeared. Hence the hiring of her future son-in-law as their new maid. Of course she dotes on her son Todd and is thrilled he is back but from the moment he announces he has AIDS, she shifts into panic mode as daughter Emma seems to have completely repressed who he was.
I could make a lot of parallels as to the extinction of the dinosaurs and what possibly seemed like the extinction of many gay men at the time this show was written, but the brilliant part of this play is that Nicky Silver doesn’t dwell on the AIDS diagnosis. Sure, his mother keeps panicking that he’s dying but Todd keeps insisting that he’s not. He has no symptoms. This is not The Normal Heart territory. It’s also refreshing to see a gay character in a play from this time period standing up for himself and insisting he’s not the evil in the world or even in his own house.
Unfortunately, the least developed character is husband and father, Arthur. I find this happens a lot in early gay playwrights’ works as the focus is primarily on the mother-son relationship, which is certainly true here. It’s a credit that Dennis Gagomiros garners any sympathy as the character doesn’t have much stage time or sympathy.
Besides seeing an early lauded work of Nicky Silver’s, the cast is the selling point of this show. They manage to keep a semblance of believability through all the absurdity as their lives fall apart while the skeleton of the pterodactyl is slowly being rebuilt by Todd in their own living room. The lines are fast and funny and this cast was very polished on opening night. This is difficult material to sell as the absurdities pile up and when the show takes a sharp turn into dramatic territory the cast manages to navigate the turn quite well. Director and Co-Producer Stephen Kaliski has chosen his cast wisely.
Some of the lighting and set changing cues seemed a bit confusing as to whether we were actually changing scenes, especially when in the middle of what seemed to be a transition, an actor had a monologue, sometimes in light, sometimes in half-darkness. This happened consistently throughout and threw off the momentum of some of the scenes.
But 21 years later, Pterodactyls is far from extinct.