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Tom Lenaghen in A Man's Best Friend
(Photo © Katherine Owens)
A veritable flood of circuses, vaudevilles, burlesques, freak shows, and carnival-themed entertainment has struck the cultural zeitgeist over the past few years. From the HBO drama Carnivale to various stage productions, writers and performers have been rediscovering these forms of entertainment. Two years ago, Tom Robbins' Carnival Knowledge shook up the Off-Broadway scene with displays of sword swallowing, fire eating, and other dangerous stunts. Since then, there's been an adaptation of the cult novel Geek Love, a Punch and Judy show, and a bio-play about the world's ugliest woman produced by the Fort Worth-based theater company Amphibian Productions. Now, the Dallas-based Undermain Theatre comes to New York to present a macabre comedy titled A Man's Best Friend, all about an appalling, misanthropic clown.

Just how bad is Sluggo the clown? When he first lumbers on to stage, the scent of his underarms repels the supporting characters and he's left alone to seek sympathy from the audience. Before too long, he blows it by kicking his dog, beating his wife, and trying to goad his younger (adoptive) brother into an early grave. A guardian angel on assignment to put a little kindness in Sluggo's heart instead becomes the devil on his shoulder, gently prodding him to give into his base impulses. The other repugnant characters include a female cop who's a little too trigger-happy with her nightstick; a Great Swami who prognosticates doom; a terminal but horny adolescent; his orange-wigged mother, who harbors incestuous desires; a giant, man-eating squid and its malignant, miniature minions; and, oddly enough, Andy Warhol.

I loved it! Comedy this daring, tasteless, weird, and disturbing hasn't been seen since television producers pulled the plug on The Kids in the Hall and The State. (If execs are smart, they'll immediately sign playwright Jeffrey M. Jones so he can put the bang back into late-night TV sketch comedy.) Ready-made though it is for a small screen transfer, A Man's Best Friend is a theater piece at its core. Sluggo seems to be a direct descendent of Punch, the wife-clobbering puppet, and the nightstick that Officer Betty Brown twirls can be traced back to the "slapstick" that originated with the commedia dell'arte form.

The acting is appropriately broad, and all of the players have impeccable timing. Tom Lenaghen is terrific in the juicy role of Sluggo; if his performance fails to draw your ire, you're probably as morally reprehensible as his character. Mary Shultz plays his wife Jane as a comically overwrought victim at one moment and with cunning the next. Kate Benson is a firecracker as the hotheaded Officer Betty, and Arthur Aulisi is a hilarious yet believable shlump as Sluggo's kid brother, Steve. The versatile Bruce DuBose does a dead-on impression of Warhol and a clever drag turn as the son-loving mother in addition to his memorable portrayal of the Great Swami. Finally, Heidi Schreck masterfully handles the difficult role of the good angel with mischief in her eyes.

The production team makes remarkable use of the Off-Off-Broadway Walkerspace. Robert Winn's set design of retro marquees and a plush red curtain creates the right mood instantly, along with Aaron Mooney's flashy lighting. Costumer Happy Yancey completes the picture with brightly colored threads. Director Katherine Owen realizes the playwright's grim vision to a soundtrack of composer Bruce DoBose's eerie tunes, and choreographer Sara Romersberger directs the considerable stage traffic well.

So, why have so many violent circus-type acts been popping up on the cultural landscape? Are artists reacting to horrifying times? Has postmodernism led to a resurgence of self-reflexive theater? Is this a backlash against realism? Whatever the reasons, A Man's Best Friend is likely to make any adventurous theatergoer feel happy about the trend.

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