"So what is performance art?" asks Queens manicurist Rose.
"I don't know," replies sweet, scattered performance artist Jeannette. "Bad theater."
It's one of many stinging exchanges in Gina Wendkos' latest play, "Dinosaurs," now at the Cast, and it bears witness to what she does best: pounce on contemporary angst and shake it down--or up.
What happens when four New York-based, disenchanted college buddies, each with high expectations and an MFA, gather to celebrate the success of a fifth?
An eruption of jealousies, rancors, spites, sorrows, secrets--and truths. Wendkos' particular forte (given its freest rein here) is perceiving the dilemmas of conflicted women in the '80s--the neuroses, struggles, disorientations and dead ends.
Where pre-feminist women only panicked if they didn't marry and move to suburbia by age 25, the overly educated post-feminist, reared with enormous expectations, is under pressure to make something of herself. But the world has changed without warning. It's become overcrowded, ruthless and unresponsive. Fail to pierce through and you're . . . "dinosaurs, as in old, ancient, useless."
The scene is a rather grim party. Thomas (Jonathan Emerson) has just wangled a showing of his work at the Whitney. He's the first of his striving circle of thirty-something-year-olds and self-appointed sophisticates to achieve that much-prized "recognition."
The "celebration" takes place in Pam's apartment. Pam (Jan Lewis) is a recessive cellist who speaks only when she has something to say. It makes for limited conversation. Another lost and timid friend is Jeannette (Catherine Harper), the haplessly bewildered performance artist mentioned earlier.
Undisputed leader of the Disenchanteds is Cindy (Karen Leigh Hopkins), a young woman with an avowed egotism problem. She's a journalist who's written a novel she can't sell, who once had a fling with Thomas and now that he's famous, is determined to get him back.
The only other male in the group is Harvey (Kurt Fuller), a struggling photographer with a hip, acerbic tongue and deadly timing. He claims to have always deeply loved Cindy, who is barely paying attention. No wonder he withholds, until the knock on the door, the information that Thomas is coming to the party with a new girlfriend--Rose (Mimi Lieber).
What ensues is the heart of this potent if still slightly undercooked play--a lashing morality tale of the '80s in which Simplicity shows up Complication at every turn.
Brassy, accented, gaudy Rose has a raw, natural wisdom that dismays and disarms. Her brazen sass and direct logic astound and conquer. This embittered group is no match for her Pandora's box of unexpected, if somewhat facile, perspectives.
"Dinosaurs" is marked by the same incisive perception about the modern battle of the sexes found in Wendkos' "Boys and Girls/Men and Women" (which played the Odyssey last year). It is augmented by the purely female crises echoed in her one-woman "Personality" (written with Ellen Ratner and still playing at the Odyssey).
This is a feisty protest from the front, sometimes a wake for lost idealism and fading hope. More importantly, Wendkos has an inquiring, defiant and (one suspects) battle-scarred mind unsatisfied with easy answers. And she knows how to frame her questions in a lively, electric play.
Production values at the Cast are austere and the play still lacks some of its emotional furniture. Under Wendkos' direction the acting is a bit uneven, with Emerson visibly struggling to give life to the notably underwritten Thomas. The party aspect of the show could be fleshed out (what's a party without food and only a couple of beers?). But the core of the argument is solid and it's almost all there.
Performances at 804 N. El Centro Ave. run Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m., until March 9. Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., and Sundays , 7 p.m. , from March 10 to April 10. Tickets until March 9: $8; March 10-April 10: $12; (213) 462-0265.