The Artificial Jungle
Nothing is more ridiculous than your deepest, darkest desires. That was one of the driving sentiments behind the work of the late playwright-director Charles Ludlam. It is an ethos that shines into 2017 New York like a beacon of hilarity in The Artificial Jungle, which is now receiving a riotous revival from Theatre Breaking Through Barriers at Theatre Row.
Ludlam was the mad genius behind off-off-Broadway's Ridiculous Theatrical Company, which he ran from 1967 until his death in 1987. The Artificial Jungle was his final work and an excellent representation of ridiculous theater, in which time-honored theatrical techniques are employed to gut-busting effect. Thirty years later, the play still feels subversive, witty, and even eerily relevant.
It takes place in a Lower East Side pet shop owned by Chester Nurdiger (a wonderfully dopey David Harrell). His mother (Anita Hollander, twisting her face into a Greek mask of judgment) and wife, Roxanne (Alyssa H. Chase) live with him in an apartment attached to the store. On Thursdays, Chester's cop best friend, Frankie (Rob Minutoli, playing an Italian Dudley Do-Right), joins them for domino night. Roxanne is fed up with her life of cleaning bird cages and feeding baby mice to the snakes. "That's the law of the jungle. Every animal preys on some other animal," Chester responds to her kvetching just as handsome drifter Zachary Slade (Anthony Michael Lopez) wanders into the store.
Roxanne convinces Chester to hire Zach for menial tasks, but she immediately senses a darker possibility in his arrival. When they are alone, she nonchalantly asks him if he happens to sell accident insurance. Lustfully, he responds, "Why, is somebody going to have an accident?" Together, they plot to murder Chester and feed him to the piranhas.
Readers might recognize the basic plot of Emile Zola's Thérèse Raquin in that description, but The Artificial Jungle takes on the language of hardboiled American crime fiction and the performance style of film noir in its tale of marital treachery. "I didn't get these lips from suckin' doorknobs," Roxanne says to Zach, mouth agape. Chase flicks her eyes like Barbara Stanwyck at some unseen camera, her heavily accented diction a malevolent shade of Ellen Greene. Smolderingly virile, Lopez endows Zach with an unsettling air of menace: A secret history seems to reside behind the high wall of his stony gaze. That fortification breaks down as Zach's resolve increasingly cedes to guilt and panic — and that's when the play gets really funny.
Under the steady direction of Everett Quinton (former artistic director of the Ridiculous, Ludlam's partner, and the original Zach), the entire cast unflinchingly commits to each beat. We howl with laughter when Zach and Roxanne cruise each other like they're in a pet shop-themed bathhouse, but the scene only works because both actors play it completely seriously. Even when you're laughing at the suspense-genre tropes, you can't help jump in your seat when they take you by surprise.
Quinton adds cinematic flair to the proceedings through Bert Scott's lighting design, which uses tight spotlights to highlight key moments, like the ominous chiming of a cuckoo clock. It's the theatrical equivalent of a jump cut. Julian Evans embellishes the already over-the-top tension with dramatic sound cues and stormy orchestral music during the transitions. As if that weren't enough to portend doom, Vandy Wood's piranha puppets swim sentinel in an oversized aquarium upstage. Attentively operated by Satoshi Haga, they follow the stage action closely, curious and famished.
Scott (who also designed the set) suggests a period piece with a clunky TV and floral-print vinyl kitchen chairs. Or perhaps this is the pet shop that time forgot: The view from the upstage windows makes it appear as though the store opens into an airless back alley. It's the kind of low-rent locale in which a New York City establishment really could exist frozen in amber since the '80s. Courtney E. Butt's costumes are assertive in their simplicity: Zach's white T-shirt and leather jacket combo makes him look poor and mean, while Roxanne's black dress with red polka dots makes her look like the devil's cocktail waitress. It's all outrageously on-the-nose, which makes it a hoot to behold.
Lest you think The Artificial Jungle is merely a camp-fest, good for laughs and nothing more, a sly social critique emerges: If we humans still operate by "the law of the jungle," aren't Roxanne and Zach completely justified in their plot against Chester? What is the use of guilt if we really are just animals?
"I was trying to show how people make an existentialist justification for things, saying the universe is a jungle, and that as human beings we are right to function, to be amoral," Ludlam wrote in Ridiculous Theatre: Scourge of Human Folly. "I was trying to attack that idea." Like Zola before him, Ludlam offers a pretty convincing rebuttal. Considering the ascendancy of amorality justified as realpolitik, this play couldn't have returned at a better time. Hopefully, The Artificial Jungle marks the beginning of a Ridiculous renaissance on the American stage. We need it.