Tales of the Lost Formicans

By Constance Congdon
Directed by Victoria Pero
Monster(less) Actors
Currican Theatre
154 W. 29th St. 2nd fl. (462-9279)
Equity showcase (closes March 21st)
Review by Scott Vogel

What's shocking today about Tales of the Lost Formicans, first staged in 1987, is not its thesis that the human race is regularly visited by extraterrestrials seeking to make sense of (and possibly control) American life. In fact, if we are to believe the President's approval ratings, no less than 70 percent of the populace appears ready to support alien rule, at least as long as the economy remains strong. No, what's shocking - indeed unthinkable - today is Ms. Congdon's assertion that aliens might not be any smarter than we are, that "we're controlled by aliens" as one character puts it, "and they're idiots." Confronted with several snapshots of life in the wilds of suburbia - of well-tended lawns fronting homes of suicidal massacre, of whole communities where residents share nothing but numbing unfulfillment - the audience naturally turns to the play's alien narrators for guidance. But these creatures have enough trouble understanding the use of a kitchen table; they're useless when it comes to human Despair. To whom or what, then, are we to turn?

One answer is the play itself, and especially its wonderfully honest depiction of the aforementioned big D. Which brings us to the flawless, peerless, and Monster(less) Actors, under the direction of Victoria Pero. Despair, were it capable of such things, would leap for joy at the thrilling work currently on display. Who knows, should the celebrated worrywart find time for a trip to Chelsea's Currican Theatre, Despair might even learn to despair ... of itself.

At the heart of this tremendous revival is extraordinary acting, of a caliber one normally associates with high-profile, moneyed theatre companies, if then. Cathy (Claire Schaefer), her New York life collapsing around her, gathers up son Eric (Sean Rachlin) and repairs to her family's homestead somewhere in Colorado. The old neighborhood, like Mamet's, is a landscape transformed (her father is losing a battle with Alzheimer's, '80s chaos has overrun her once-pristine subdivision). Equal parts frustration and fascination, Ms. Schaefer's moving performance ought to be immediately recorded and put into a time capsule (perhaps for the benefit of future aliens, who may be sharper than the present lot). Similarly, Mr. Rachlin perfectly captured the essence of teenaged ambivalence. One moment found him foul-mouthed and apathetic, the next patting his mother's head with affection. A nice moment, that.

Despite its subject matter, Tales maintains a lovely lightness of tone throughout. In fact, never has contemporary hopelessness seemed so seductive, even hilarious. But director Pero resisted the script's obvious temptations toward farce, leading the audience instead to a stranger, more heartrending place. Cathy's embrace of her oddball, conspiracy-minded neighbor Jerry (Micah Hollingworth, yet another performance of subtlety and charm) was just one touching example. To the sweet strains of Mozart, this pair of lonely survivors clung tightly to each other ... just before a savagely funny coda. And the climactic conflagration, in which the town's mall, flea market, and Roy Rogers are burned to the ground, left an impression that is simply indescribable in words. (The work here by sound designer Antonio Garfias and lighting designer Chris Dallos was exceptional.)

Through it all, the aliens (Matt Frederick and Elizabeth Horsburgh) looked on with kindness, interest, and - unfortunately - befuddlement. Given the context, their inability (or unwillingness) to help verged on the unforgivable. Then again, do we really need aliens, when playwright Congdon and the Monster(less) Actors understand us so well? (Also featuring first-rate performances by Fred Burrell, Sylvia Norman, and Justine Rossi.)

Box Score:

Writing: 2
Acting: 2
Directing: 2
Sets: 1
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 2

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Copyright 1998 Scott Vogel