Old Bones

‘Pterodactyls’: a history lesson in the new Ice Age

By Gretchen Giles

A famous 12-step observation about dysfunctional families is that their problems loom as large as an elephant in the living room, yet somehow family members–through training or choice–seem able to obliviously walk around its stolid legs, duck under the trunk, and step delicately over the steaming piles, carrying on as though the pesky pachyderm weren’t any closer to their home than the city zoo.

Well, make that elephant a baby T. rex dinosaur skeleton and make that family as unhappily mad as they come, and you get a flavor of Pterodactyls, a dark comedy of extinction currently playing at the Cinnabar Theater.

Grace (Laurel Watt) is a drunk with what you might call a severe denial problem. When her son returns to the family home unexpectedly with the revelation that he has AIDS, she continues to natter on about a party she wants to plan for his arrival, exclaiming over details while he repeats his matter-of-fact declarations of illness. Her husband, Arthur (Dwayne Stincelli), has got a bit of a drinking problem too, and, sure, he loves his kids–he just can’t seem to sort memories of their childhoods out from his own. Daughter Emma (Lisa Graham) has almost no memories at all and feels that her skin is that of a little girl which has just been unconscionably stretched over her terribly adult figure. And brother Todd (Carlin Roth) just wants to seek the truth, build his skeleton (dug up appropriately enough, from the back yard), and wait to die. Pale and garbed in a knee-length maid’s uniform for most of the action is Tommy (Paul Horwinski), Emma’s fiancé . . . and Todd’s lover.

Directed by Michael Fontaine–who also designed the handsomely mid-upper-middle-class set–Pterodactyls could use a little less flesh on its bones. The wicked dialogue, complete with its laugh-o-meter lines, needs snappy attention from those who utter it, and there was a certain flaccidity to the actors’ hop-to.

Stagecraft ain’t no easy business.

What is easy in this production is Laurel Watt’s detestably lovely portrayal of Grace, the headstrong, bitchy, charming, dying drunk from another era–Watt can barely control her, but she eventually does.

Lisa Graham brings much nervous mischief to poor hypochondriacal Emma, always dressed in the same summer frock, always clutching at the hysterical onset of her next illness. The whole play is worth the delicious delight she takes in being dead.

The men fare less well, but perhaps that is the life of this play. Paul Horwinski’s Tommy is watery, coming in and out of focus with an unsatisfying blurriness. Dwayne Stincelli’s Arthur has a few moments of sharpness, as when he’s reminiscing, but is written out onto the patio and unseen rooms of the play so often that his character–as in real hard-drinking families–never really counts. And Carlin Roth’s Todd is inscrutable: Is he the dweeb of the show’s opening history lesson or the kind of man who would knowingly give another man AIDS?

Like an old episode of Family Ties on mescaline, Pterodactyls takes this queasy quintet from Emma and Tommy’s impending (impending like doom) marital plans to the eventual demise of this particular species of mammal, killed by their own hands and folly, a bad cold snap, and a terrible plague. Although many of off-Broadway playwright Nicky Silver’s lines are funny from the cute-as-hell school of laughs, there are several genuine aching chuckles to be had from this tragedy, as people rush to kill themselves by inches and degrees while the corpse of the ancient world rises next to the credenza.

Pterodactyls plays Fridays-Sundays through March 9. Special Thursday performance March 7 at 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 3 p.m. Cinnabar Theater, 3333 Petaluma Blvd. North, Petaluma. $8-$12. 763-8920.

From the Feb. 28-Mar. 6, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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