Robert Hock and Mahira Kakkar
in The Cave Dwellers
(© Gregory Costanzo)
Robert Hock and Mahira Kakkar
in The Cave Dwellers
(© Gregory Costanzo)
Throughout his 1957 postapocalyptic fantasy The Cave Dwellers, William Saroyan inserted unsubtle digs deriding "the new playwrights," when his debt to -- and no doubt envy of -- writers such as Pirandello, Giradoux, Ionesco, and Beckett couldn't have been more obvious.

This is not Saroyan, the relentlessly upbeat chronicler of immigrants chasing down the American Dream; instead it's the marginalized anti-/would-be modernist trying to ride a trend even as he pretends to buck it. The result is a coarse and clumsy play, bearing a simplistic message (basically, love conquers all), a steaming heap of whimsy, and very little in the way of nuance. So it's all the more credit to the Pearl Theatre that they manage to wrest as much authenticity as they do from this old creaker.

They truly convince you of the cold, to start. Set designer Devon Painter has transformed the East Village stage into a derelict hulk of itself, with a long-extinguished chandelier dripping dust and tattered curtains shivering in the wind. Against a background of alarms and bomb blasts (it could be Armageddon or it could be encroaching gentrification), a "family" of sorts has sought shelter in this abandoned theater.

The King (Robert Hock, resembling Buster Keaton long gone to seed) is a clown turned beggar; the Queen (Carol Schultz) is a classical actress given to portentous declarations even as hunger tightens its death grip. The Duke (Marcus Naylor), a once-champion boxer felled by his lack of killer instinct, is a relatively new recruit, and the Girl (Mahira Kakkar), whom he lets in out of pity, doesn't really belong at all, seeing as she's not "people of the theatre," her plucky rendition of the Pledge of Allegiance notwithstanding.

Everyone is shown shuddering, shivering, convulsing with cold, moaning in their troubled sleep. Yet they're unflaggingly kind to one another, sharing what crumbs they manage to amass and even engaging in a form of musical beds. The situation is fraught to the max -- even more so at the climax of act one, when a whole new gang of unfortunates pounds on the door, demanding admittance. (A moment that will truly resonate with those who remember the panic-mongering of the 1950s about the need to barricade your bomb shelter.)

You'd think the plot would thicken in the second half, but you'd be wrong. It's more of the same, only with a longer list of dramatis personae -- including a bear, the one surprising development in the entire proceedings. Although thoroughly shrouded in plush, Barthelemy Atsin proves quite expressive as the ursine creature.

The King recounts a humiliating experience, the Queen summons some Mother Courage in the face of a greater need, and the Girl - a cartoonishly jejune creature seemingly summoned from some earlier, more innocent era - must choose between two loves. This is the stretch wherein Saroyan examines the role of the artist in society, outlines the purpose and function of art (to spread love, remember?), and, in the person of the Wrecking Crew Boss (Dominic Cuskem), brings home the message -- already demonstrated by the selflessly interdependent "family" -- of our essential human decency. The problem is no one likes having their pathos strings quite so methodically plucked.

In the absence of compelling character development, one is forced to take pleasure in the actors' very real gifts. Best of all are Naylor as a failed fighter wrestling with his emerging inner lover; Kakkar, who must summon a passionate, living soul with no more to go on than an outfit involving a tam and knee socks; and Pearl stalwart Sean McNall, portraying a can-do animal trainer convinced that, with just a bit more tweaking, he could concoct the ultimate act, thereby graduating from the street to a circus.

Unfortunately, no amount of fiddling or fine acting can suffice to put over this ill-conceived, invidious simulacrum of profundity.