Absurdist plays are distinctive works that we tend to associate with the likes of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, but rarely do we get a fresh example of this style. Sari Caine's Mr. Landing Takes a Fall, now running at The Flea Theater in a production by Slightly Altered States, indicates that a strong new voice in the genre may be emerging. With a fair amount of indebtedness to Edward Albee, and a little Eugène Ionesco, Caine takes a darkly comic look at suburban malaise, repressed sexual desire, and our desperate need to connect.
The production seeks to disorient from the outset. As audiences enter the theater, they have to cross Clifton Chadick's set, a discombobulating experience that gives the impression of having gone the wrong way. An armchair, television, stove, refrigerator, and toilet — all in the same room — reinforce the feeling that something weird is going on.
It gets weirder. Middle-aged Mrs. Landing (played with absurdist flair by Kathryn Rossetter) is a '50s-looking housewife who wears a green dress and perma-grin that seems ready to bite off the end of her cigarette holder. She lives in some unknown suburbia in some unknown time with her alcoholic husband (Adam LeFevre), who has a penchant for the color green and a disdain for wearing pants. As the pair banters while listening to music from a record player in the oven, Mrs. Landing reveals that she has put the house up for sale. Then comes a knock at the door.
Things really get nutty when young couple Cynthia (played by Caine) and Michael (David Rigo) enter in wedding attire and inquire about buying the house. Mrs. Landing, however, never intended to sell. Instead she hands Cynthia some cleaning supplies and promptly ushers Michael off to the bedroom for some hanky-panky, leaving Cynthia with Mr. Landing, who woos her with alcohol, gifts, and sweet nothings mumbled boozily in her ear.
As in Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a play that echoes throughout Mr. Landing Takes a Fall, the couples drink heavily as hidden secrets spill onto the carpet, or in this case, the Astroturf. Skin and truths are laid bare as clothing is removed piece by piece and the couples face the uncomfortable, at times brutal, realities of their relationships.
Caine plays Cynthia with a daffy humor that is complemented by David Rigo, who makes you feel a bit gross as he reveals the insidious animal beneath Michael's rented tux. Together they create a fascinating couple, as do the hysterical Rossetter and LeFevre, both of whom toss their characters' verbal barbs with impeccable timing.
The humor does begin to sputter in the play's second half. In some scenes that ought to be riotously funny — as when Mrs. Landing shoves Cynthia inside the refrigerator — director Sherri Eden Barber doesn't quite achieve the swiftly paced camp that would make them memorable. Mr. Landing's serious side (you always know it's coming) slams the brakes on the fun abruptly. The story stumbles a bit as the plot darkens, and a heavy mood toward the end makes the play feel a bit longer than its 75 minutes.
But despite the loss of momentum, Mr. Landing Takes a Fall is smart, witty, and richly symbolic. Caine's language always crackles, and she never makes the rookie mistakes of explaining too much or pandering to her audience. Absurdist theater may be an acquired taste, but for those with an appetite for it, this production has served up a tasty morsel.