In the mid-1990s one of my favorite albums was a dark post-hip hop LP by British artist, Tricky, titled “Pre-Millennium Tension.” In retrospect, the title captures the zeitgeist in the years running up to “Y2K”: a fear that a carefree age might soon be destroyed. This anxiety is also evidenced in New City Stage Company’s darkly hilarious PTERODACTYLS, written in 1993 and now onstage in Philadelphia (at the Adrienne Theatre) for the first time since 1996.
PTERODACTYLS takes place in a sterile Main Line living room (set design Cory Palmer), a fitting setting for a work reminiscent of Victorian drawing room comedy. Bygone era music underlines the play’s status as a period piece. Indeed, several members of the moneyed Duncan family who inhabit this suburban enclave would feel at home in fin de siècle London.
Within moments of her entry, Grace (Cheryl Williams), the mother of this dysfunctional clan, is ringing a bell for the maid to bring her a drink. Her husband Arthur (Bruce Graham) has plenty of money, but few interpersonal skills, at least when it comes to interacting with his amnesiac daughter Emma (Ginger Dayle) and her sexually confused fiance Tommy (Kevin Meehan). Into this comedy of manners steps Todd (Jered McLenigan), the prodigal son returned from a bohemian life carrying that late twentieth century mortality trope, AIDS. (Using the disease as plot device was probably cheap even then; it seems particularly dated now, and equating promiscuous homosexuality with a death wish grates, too.)
Writer Nicky Silver presents the Duncans as a dying vestige of a charmed world. This theme of impending extinction runs through PTERODACTYLS; telegraphed to the audience in the form of a dinosaur skeleton assembled over the course of the play, ostensibly from bones which Todd is digging up in the backyard.
Todd (whose name means “death” in German, as his sister says in a sophomoric moment of lucidity) is unearthing a long-dead creature (an adolescent, robbed of life before its time), even has he denies the threat of own death. The characters in PTERODACTYLS are in denial about a lot.
Incestuous desire, gender and sexuality confusion, alcoholism, and molestation by priests, are just some of the serious issues which Silver inserts into the work for his characters to remain oblivious to. This a very funny play, with broad comic dialog and caricatured personality types which would not be out of place on a TV sit com. For the first two acts the issues seem mere devices, never treated with the weight they would seem to deserve. But behind the absurdity and jokes darkness forebodes. When the action lurches into seriousness in the final act, the dark realism is as affecting as the comedy is funny.
Among a solid cast, Williams does a great job as Grace, retaining a consistent character even as the tone fluctuates severely. McLenigan is strong in several scenes, but struggles to maintain a coherent personality as Todd. This is also true of PTERODACTYLS as a work. It’s entertaining throughout, but the switch from lighthearted comedy of manners to end-of-the-world darkness is unsatisfying and the seriousness feels trite rather than profound.
Perhaps it works best as a period piece, a product of a anxious, self-serious era. The millennium came and went, as did the millennial events of September 2001. The world as we knew it may have ended, but life went on.
by Nicky Silver
Directed by Brenna Geffers
March 3–27, 2011
New City Stage Company
at Mainstage at the Adrienne Theatre
2030 Sansom Street