John Larroquette and Michael Zegen in Oliver Parker!
(© The Shaltzes/Photographers)
John Larroquette and Michael Zegen in Oliver Parker!
(© The Shaltzes/Photographers)
Elizabeth Meriwether's Oliver Parker!, which stageFARM is currently producing at the Cherry Lane Theatre, brings to mind Joe Orton's plays as it finds comedy in some of the darkest corners of our contemporary world. It's a bracing, yet only fitfully satisfying, black comedy that's enhanced immeasurably by four remarkably daring performances.

The action unfolds in the filthy apartment (keenly designed by Lauren Halpern) belonging to Jasper (John Larroquette), an aging and bitter alcoholic with anger issues. He's supported by Oliver (Michael Zegen), a 17-year-old with scads of family money at his disposal, raging hormones, and what appears to be a severe case of ADHD. The pair's codependency dates back to Oliver's childhood when Jasper was Oliver's family's chauffeur -- and as audiences come to realize both the young man's first real friend and also his abuser.

Their attempt to reconcile their past is disturbing, touching, and even sometimes very funny -- and the humor of the piece is only enhanced when Willa Cross (Johanna Day), a U.S. Senator, who's dealing with her daughter's unsolved murder, comes into their world. She's an old friend of Oliver's family; and one night, at one of the myriad fundraisers he attends with his mother, he brings her to Jasper's place, hoping to seduce her. His attempts fail miserably, but he does see a glimmer of hope for something in the future when she asks him if he might be able to score her some pain killers from his surgeon dad.

Meriwether puts this trio of wounded souls -- along with Willa's steely aide, Agnes (excellently played by Monica Raymund) -- into some deliciously preposterous situations. For instance Oliver's dressed as a skeleton during his fumbled seduction of Willa, who's dressed as a pirate, and there's a terrific running gag about a half-eaten pie that lies on the floor in the apartment.

Indeed, when Meriwether allows the play to let rip as a comedic roller-coaster through the grimmer sides of the characters' lives and psyches, the play works marvelously. Less successful -- and almost nearly as frequent -- are the moments when she panders for theatergoers' empathy for her characters, and the play stalls as laughter is replaced by discomfort. Director Evan Cabnet attempts to balance the play's dichotomous tones and there are moments in his assured staging when he succeeds brilliantly, most notably in the production's final tableau, which proves chilling.

The performers also enliven the production with a combination of zealousness and fearlessness. Larroquette delivers the script's frequent zingers with precision while also making Jasper a man of simmering menace who's concurrently sadly pitiable. Zegen's work is equally impressive; his dashing and superlatively appealing Oliver is a bundle of raw energy that's flailing at the world, trying to make sense of where he's been and where he's going, while Day reveals surprising depths as the cougarish Willa, even as she glides with smooth flair through some of the play's truly ridiculous situations.