by: JK Clarke
The definition of the He-Man has changed significantly over recent years. Where once the macho, alpha male was a square-jawed, buzz cut, military-tinged, angry man, an earthiness has now taken over. In some circles. Take for example Richard, the husband-host of the foursome dinner party in Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s Hunter Gatherers now playing at the Duo, presented by Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company. He’s got shoulder-length hair, a swarthy five o’clock shadow, ironic chef’s checkered pants and a genial, kind face. But, we come to find out he’s a philandering, narcissistic bully. And, for all intents and purposes, a rapist. It turns out the primal, mandatory wrestling matches he engages in (and always wins) with his “best friend” have a rather intense (and not wholly acquiesced) bounty for the winner (which is always him).
In Hunter Gatherers Pam (Emily Dahlke) and Richard (Joseph W. Rodriguez) are hosting a dinner for lifelong friends, Wendy (Megan O’Leary) and Tom (John Russell). Before their guests arrive, we see Pam and Richard preparing the meal . . . by killing the creature they intend to serve. It’s not long before we understand the fundamental schism in this couple’s life. Richard feels a primal connection to killing and preparing the meal, whereas Pam is flooded with guilt. The dinner perfectly illustrates how their personalities are completely mismatched. The evening unravels from the moment of Wendy and Tom’s arrival, for they are just as ill-suited for one another. What’s more, all four are harboring pent up secrets that can no longer be contained. The result is explosive.
This is the sort of play that could go either way. The theme and storyline is a familiar one that we’ve seen with power imbalanced male relationships from Laurel and Hardy to Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble. In all examples the primary male is unbearable and the submissive one has a sort of Stockholm Syndrome, where he’s an emotional hostage who has somehow become dependent upon his bully. The primary differences here are both the look and feel of the alpha characters, the severity of the abuse, and of course, the explosive finality of the ending. Russell and Rodriguez play with the extremes of their characters so well that while we see them absurd or outrageous, we can still take them seriously. Despite their own complex dramas, their female counterparts represent collateral damage more than anything.
Director Eric Tucker (the very excellent Artistic Director of the Bedlam Theater Company) has done an exemplary job of keeping the play from veering into mediocrity, primarily by finding tremendous humor in the dysfunction playing out in the characters’ lives. His ironic and pointed musical flourishes between scenes and the brilliant comic timing he extracts from his actors are characteristic of his other productions. Tucker’s work has been already lauded in the highest circles, and this play only further demonstrates his outstanding skill; it’s exciting to consider what he has in store for the future.
In the wrong hands, Hunter Gatherers could be difficult to watch, but this cynical yet familiar farce with a modern wrinkle is a strong production. And it turns out the meat is tasty.
Hunter Gatherers. Presented by Playhouse Creatures Through March 28 at the Duo Theater (62 East 4th Street, between Second Avenue and the Bowery). www.playhousecreatures.org
Photos: Russ Ross