James M. Larmer, Victor Villar-Hauser,and Tara Denby in The Pitchfork Disney(Photo © Richey Fahey)
James M. Larmer, Victor Villar-Hauser,
and Tara Denby in The Pitchfork Disney
(Photo © Richey Fahey)
There are some genuine delights to be had in The Pitchfork Disney, a super-dark comedy by Philip Ridley that ran for an extended period on London's fringe theater circuit (equivalent to New York's Off-Off-Broadway) in the early nineties. Sharply directed for the most part by Kevin Kittle, the play is now being presented in New York by Stiff Upper Lip productions, a group of Brits dedicated to bringing across the pond shows that didn't play on London's West End stages.

Unfortunately, the playwright's self-indulgence harms the impact that The Pitchfork Disney might otherwise have. But until Ridley gets away from himself in the second act, the show works well, presenting a bizarre world of buried insights and twisted comedy. From the very first scene, we are plunged into the home and lives of Presley and Haley Stray, fraternal twins whose development was arrested when they lost their parents and who now venture out only to buy chocolate, which obsesses them.

Their home is filthy and the brother and sister, played by Victor Villar-Hauser and Tara Denby respectively, sport ancient stains on their clothing (costuming by Tina Nigro). Their age is revealed to be 28 but their fears, eccentricities, and goofy rituals have kept them from interacting with the world and growing up. One of their rituals is the recitation of wildly overwrought stories about the horrors they have seen or dream they might see outside of their home. After telling a very funny tale of being chased by dogs and then being saved by a gun-toting stranger, Denby as Haley glances at her brother with the smugness of a child of six who has spun the wildest yarn she can conceive of and half-expects to be taken seriously. The expertise of Denby's performance and Kittles' direction in this sequence give the audience one of several opportunities to laugh at this pathetic yet rather charming creature.

Villar-Hauser as Presley seamlessly embodies the boy-man's paranoid fantasy life; his story of his recurring nightmare captivates us, though with a more serious tone, as he imagines a world destroyed by nuclear war. Haley seems reassured by her brother's eerie vision but works herself into a panic at the idea that, since the world is actually full of people -- two of whom Presley has just seen through the window -- someone might try to invade their home. A few palliatives are offered by Presley, including a kind of medicine that their parents used to take; this he applies to a large pacifer that Haley sucks on, which sends her off to sleep.

Hereafter, the deeper themes that the playwright seeks to explore begin to materialize. Presley tells of having behaved compulsively and eaten a disgusting item after frying it in a pan, merely a clue of the grotesquery we're treated to in the second act. Ridley seems to be saying that all of us are drawn to the grotesque and that in this impulse lies the seeds of our own destruction.

To engage that theme, he introduces a truly bizarre second-act character -- even by the standards of this play. Cosmo Disney, one of the two people Presley saw outside the window, is apprehended by the shut-in and brought inside the house after becoming sick in the gutter outside. Clad in a sparkling red-sequined tuxedo jacket, this fellow describes himself as "perfect." Disney takes an interest in Presley and Haley, for reasons we do not comprehend, and converses genially with the former while the latter snoozes on the filthy chair downstage. But Disney reveals an extreme level of homophobia when confronted with the prospect of touching Presley, who requests a pat on the head from the outsider. In an Australian accent that is never explained, Disney -- played by James M. Larmer with a stiffness that the director should have addressed -- asks Presley if he has ever wanted to "ride the chocolate highway," an allusion to gay sex that brings the play into a whole different territory.

Victor Villar-Hauser, James M. Larmer,and Tara Denby in The Pitchfork Disney(Photo © Richey Fahey)
Victor Villar-Hauser, James M. Larmer,
and Tara Denby in The Pitchfork Disney
(Photo © Richey Fahey)
The chocolate eaters are then insulted, threatened, cajoled, and patronized by Disney, whose presence is apparently meant to provide an antagonistic foil for the shut-ins. Disney proclaims the supreme value of money, declares outright the fecklessness and bloodlust of humanity, and seems to want to teach Presley all about it.

There are a few religious metaphors in the show that are not well managed, and there's a scene in which we hear Presley's nightmare again as told to Disney; this time, the description includes a serial killer named The Pitchfork Disney. The retelling takes so long and contains so much repetition of images from the first act that the listener's patience is sorely tested, but the serial murderer in Presley's dream apparently leaves a statue of a cartoon mouse at every crime scene -- an allusion to Mickey Mouse's creator and one that adds another distracting element to the play's already weird mixture of themes. Next, Cosmo Disney's partner, a hulking character named (surprise!) Pitchfork, enters wearing a Hannibal Lecter-style facemask and behaving like a lobotomized Frankenstein. The brief appearance of Pitchfork (Aidan Redmond) is undoubtedly meant to add menace and drama to the proceedings, but the play's strange internal logic has unraveled by this point. When Pitchfork waltzes in a sparkling red tuxedo jacket with the sleeping Haley, it's a puzzlement.

Things turn out all right in the end for the characters -- and the audience, which gets to laugh a lot in the first act and may enjoy trying to figure things out in the second. But Ridley should have trimmed about an hour from this 150-minute marathon, and he would have done well to clarify his themes and tighten the drama around Cosmo's entrance. If Disney is a killer, we should have some feeling of genuine fear from the start. The relative languor of the second act, wherein Ridley's attempts to eschew plot backfire, largely negates the good will built up in the first act.

The technical aspects of the show are competently rendered; there's a nice set by Valerie Green and good lighting (with few resources) by Anne E. McMills. Perhaps the London fringe is a more forgiving circuit than our Off-Off scene, but someone on one or another side of the ocean should have asked this adventurous playwright to trim and sharpen his script.