American Century’s Hilarious, Surreal ‘Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Momma’s Hung You …

You know you’re in for a strange ride at American Century Theater when you’re met at the door by blue-clad bellboys who obsequiously, guide you to your seats. The set’s sea-green walls, electric pink trim and melted-checkerboard floor (designed and executed in fine detail by Katie Wertz) reinforce the notion that you are in a very surreal place. It isn’t even clear when the show itself is supposed to start-but the moment Madame Rosepettle strolls in (played with a subtle, demonic authority by Robin Reck), decked out in a hairdo that is half B-52 and half Bride of Frankenstein, you realize there’s no escape. Fasten your seat-belts, folks, you’re about to enter the bizarre world of Arthur Kopit‘s Boomer-era classic Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ so Sad.

Written in the late 1950’s in a fine post-graduate frenzy, Kopit’s play was inspired as much by the European avant-garde as by the angst of the Eisenhower years. Other American writers were experimenting as well-Edward Albee‘s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” was a study in Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, for example. But where Albee tore the bandages off of America’s gaping wounds, Kopit gives us such a freakish slant there’s nothing to do but laugh. Kopit shared this cock-eyed sensibility with other movers and shakers of the time – Bob Dylan probably owes a few of his best stream-of-consciousness lyrics to this play (“fantastic collection of stamps,” anyone?), and it’s hardly coincidental that Stanley Kubrick‘s take on nuclear war with the equally long title of “Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” premiered shortly afterwards.

Kopit’s play offers a cast of characters that reflect all the anxieties of the age-sex, death, babysitters, philately (as in stamps-what did you think I meant?), etc. In truly Freudian fashion, Madame Rosepettle rules over this crazy world, this ‘Momma Dearest’ personifying all of our worst fears. She enters her new hotel room ordering the bellboys around as they wrestle with her odd luggage-the coffin containing her (presumably) late husband being among the oddest. The bellboys, five in all, carry on with all the studied clumsiness of the Stooges or Marx Brothers, and happily moonlight as dancers too. Two of them double as actual characters, with Manolo Santalla exchanging his blue duds for the sleek white of Commodore Roseabove; and at the play’s climax, Jorge Silva rises to the occasion as Jonathan’s Freudian (un-) dead dad.

Rosepettle’s son Jonathan, whose neuroses themselves have neuroses, cowers in his mom’s presence and clearly prefers his stamps and model airplanes to company. As Jonathan, Tony Strowd channels his inner Pee-Wee Herman to hilarious effect and-like all good Cold-War momma’s boys-seems especially terrified by females of the species. Not coincidentally his world is shattered by the intrusion of Rosalie the femme-fatale babysitter. Rosalie, as (ahem) embodied by Emery Erin, makes the most of her attempts to seduce Jonathan, which makes for some priceless comic moments.

Presiding over the strange goings-on in the tacky ‘Hotel Libre’ is Rosalinda, Madame Rosepettle’s beloved piranha. Rosalinda’s entrance is a true scene-stealer: with a little slight-of hand from the bellboys an aquarium materializes center-stage, and out of it emerges Anna Lynch; through the rest of the evening she swims, smiles, and yaks away contentedly in her glassy domicile. You need no reminder that something fishy is afoot, but Lynch’s constant movement provides an especially loopy foundation upon which to build the show.

We also discover that Madame Rosepettle owns a pair of gigantic Venus Fly Traps: Steve Przbylski and Vaughn Irving, in hilarious botanically-correct green gear, provide a soundtrack on guitar and trap set while presumably awaiting the next stray fly (or gig). Kudos for Jacy Barber’s costume designs, which more than suit the atmosphere of the show.

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