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'Chimps' finds Mamet inspiring

May 02, 2003|Philip Brandes

A neurotic suburban couple are held captive in their own home by relentless door-to-door salesmen who prey on their victims' insecurities. It's a premise ripe with possibilities, too many of which remain unrealized in "Chimps," an ambitious but frustrating effort that squanders some fine performances from Pasadena's Furious Theatre.

The company collaborated with British playwright Simon Block to adapt his play's native setting and colloquialisms for an American theatergoer's palette. What doesn't improve in the transposition is a fundamental confusion about whether this play is meant as parody or serious drama, a muddle director Damaso Rodriguez can't resolve.

The young couple, Mark (Shawn Lee) and Stevie (Sara Hennessy), are already in precarious financial straits as they await the arrival of their first baby in a few months. Mark, an illustrator, has impulsively quit his job to pursue his dream of illustrating a children's alphabet book (he's completed only two letters), forcing pragmatic Stevie to be the breadwinner.

The aptly named Mark is an easy target for Gabriel (Terrance Ellis) and Larry (Richard Hilton), who convince him that the couple's newly purchased home is rotting away from "brick degeneration," requiring immediate application of the expensive Ex-Cote sealant.

In a neat reversal, Gabriel, who is black, feigns deference when in fact he's a supervisor evaluating the middle-aged Larry, who's desperate to keep his job. As they ratchet up the high-pressure tactics to counter Stevie's increasingly strident objections, the sharks are also playing a domination game between themselves.

In other words, the play is a "Glengarry Glen Ross" wannabe (right down to invocation of the "Always Be Closing" dictum). But here the clumsiness of the sales pitches strains credibility. "Most people would rather be living circa 1958 -- I know I would" is one of Larry's many funny lines, but who would ever take him seriously? Or the hilariously bad promotional film the team screens in the kitchen? The comic gems of dialogue surpass -- and often undermine -- the sum of the parts. Especially when they punctuate the couple's earnestly played deteriorating relationship.

In aping David Mamet, "Chimps" lacks all finesse. Where Mamet uses male potency as the subtextual engine driving a sale, Block makes it the explicit subject of the pitch Larry uses on Mark -- who falls for it, moving beyond gullibility to sheer idiocy. I mean, even among chimps, sometimes a banana is just a banana.

*

"Chimps," Furious Theatre at Armory Northwest, 965 N. Fair Oaks Ave., Pasadena. Fridays-Sundays, 8:30 p.m. Ends May 25. $15 to $20. (818) 679-8854. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.

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