Contrary to popular opinion, it is not necessary for everything to work in a theatrical production in order for that production to be thoroughly captivating and challenging. Case in point is this Tall Skinny Cruel Cruel Boys by Caroline V. McGraw, a play that takes bold chances, jumping in and out of surreal moments.
Not all of these jumps land on their feet, since one is never sure whether the play is speaking literally or symbolically. But thanks to the muscular direction of Jeremy Paul and a talented cast, you’re able to hang on to McGraw’s central conceit and find some treasures in there.
Brandy is a woman who makes her living as a clown for kids’ parties. But once she’s out of her baggy pants and makeup, Brandy is a human clown-car that spills forth with lots of dark secrets and sleazy behavior. She will apparently sleep with any bipedal mammal with a Y chromosome, including high school student Jack (Bryon Tobin) and multiple dads of the kiddies for whom she performs. She prowls these men like a sexual scavenger, grabbing for any shred of warmth that can hide the emptiness behind the forced gaiety of her painted-on smile.
Sure, the clown thing is a cliché that has been trampled to death in many ways, but here the usual baggage doesn’t really get in the way. Plus, there are other characters that add welcome touches of both realism and magical thinking. Nina (a wonderfully detached yet perceptive Lauren Joy Fraley) is kind of a Brandy groupie, always with her small child (a stuffed doll) in her arms. And Reverb (an amusing Ryan Lucas) is another clown, a down-to-earth version, who finally seems to find a way to relate to Brandy.
Then there’s The Un, a metaphorical (?) monster under Brandy’s bed, the one who continually claws at her, leaving a dark red stain on her neck and chest. Fed by Brandy’s insecurities , The Un seems unstoppable until confronted by Jack’s high school gal pal Tash (Valerie C. Kilmer), who eventually pierces the monster’s hold with her bold innocence.
An almost naked Val Kozlenko plays The Un with genuine menace, and then somehow changes while under the bed into normal clothes to play Jason, one of the fathers who beds Brandy. In the latter role, Kozlenko is even scarier as he corners Brandy and insists that she “perform” for him, in a scene that crackles with his dominance and her desperation.
In the daunting role of Brandy, Rachel Lee Kolis demonstrates a raw physicality that gives her performance a mesmerizing quality. Although Kolis’ clowning skills are marginal (some awkward juggling, etc.), she uses her body postures and attitudes to define the various “shows” that her character is driven to stage. This is a woman who, staring into the abyss of her own emptiness, is seeking to equalize the pressure in her head by tapping into the shallow insubstantial fog of masks and quickie sex acts.
Played in the round on a set surrounded by white fabric panels, and augmented by Benjamin Gantose’s lighting and original music by Eric M.C. Gonzalez, the piece flows briskly.
Director Paul seems entirely comfortable in this mash-up of themes and genres, all suffused with McGraw’s sharp, take-no-prisoners dialog. And while some elements don’t completely work—it all still does. Quite marvelously.
Tall Skinny Cruel Cruel Boys
Through November 14, produced by Theater Ninjas at the Near West Lofts, 6706 Detroit Ave., theaterninjas.com.