By Samuel L. Leiter
You can feel the influence of Little Shop of Horrors on Charles Ludlam’s The Artificial Jungle, a campy takeoff on film noir and B-movies, the minute you see Bert Scott’s set for the play’s moderately amusing revival at the Clurman Theatre. Instead of a little flower shop, with a giant, flesh-eating plant at center, we’re in a colorful pet shop with a school of flesh-eating piranhas circling in their tank for blood. You might even expect those razor-toothed fish to break out with “Feed Me, Seymour” at some point. Too bad they don’t.
Instead of Seymour, the play gives us Chester Nurdinger (David Harrell), the pet shop’s nerdy proprietor, who lives there with his sex-starved vamp of a wife, Roxanne (Alyssa H. Chase), and his doting mother, referred to as Mother Nurdinger (Anita Hollander). When smooth operator Zachary Slade (Anthony Michael Lopez) is hired to work at the shop, he quickly becomes the target of Roxanne’s sexual hunger. Also, because he once sold insurance, Roxanne enlists him in a plot to murder Chester and cash in on his insurance payoff. (Film buffs will smell the aroma of Double Identity and The Postman Always Rings Twice.)
When the dire deed is done and the piranhas get a taste of the action, Ludlam pulls off a couple of funny shockers by bringing Chester back to prey on Zach’s guilty conscience. Other incidents conspire to prove that the best-laid plans of mice (hey, it’s a pet shop, isn’t it?) and men oft gang agley. Also laugh-worthy are the attempts of Mother Nurdinger, who’s had a stroke, to let Frankie Spinelli (Rob Minutoli), the shop’s dimwitted police officer friend, know what’s happened by using only her rubber face and rolling eyes.
Much of this can be humorous but it no longer packs the comic punch it had in 1986, even in the directorial hands of Everett Quinton, a close collaborator of Ludlam’s. Quinton, in fact, played Zach in the original production (Ludlam played Chester), produced by Ludlam’s famed Ridiculous Theatrical Company, which ended when the playwright-actor-director died of AIDs in 1987. This was his last play.
Like most Ridiculous work, The Artificial Jungle is a broad farce, but is nonetheless essentially realistic, carefully-plotted, and verbally adroit, with lots of comic wordplay. While the exaggerated acting is more or less in tune with Ludlam’s intentions, it can do little with lines that too often thud and situations that are wildly overstated. I admit I heard lots of laughter but very little of it came from me.
Crossdressing was common in Ridiculous productions so drag performer Ethyl Eichelberger played Mother Nurdinger in the first staging. Later versions also cast men in the role; in the current revival, she’s played by a woman, Anita Hollander, whose high-pitched, exaggerated New York accent, seems to be channeling Jean Stapleton’s Edith from “All in the Family.” Comically effective as this often is, it can be grating; Hollander is at her best when she’s paralyzed and has to depend on her rubber face.
Her over-the-top shtick is matched by the heavy-breathing Chase as Roxanne, slinking about on high heels like a cat in heat, and spitting out lines like “Love is a disease and you gave it to me,” with more than a tad of Marilyn Monroe thrown in. Lopez works hard at Zach but he lacks the comic panache to make his pairing with Chase as hilarious as it should be. Harrell’s Chester is cheerfully goofy and Minutoli’s Frankie is a believable meathead.
The show’s drollest moments, though, come from those ravenous piranhas, represented by puppets designed by Vandy Woods and manipulated by Satoshi Haga. Their reactions to what’s going on offer the show’s most hilarious contributions. Like Audrey, these voracious puppets steal every scene they’re in.
Scott’s set has the right comic attitude but its layout, with a bedroom section at one side that can’t decide if it’s in the shop or another room is a serious distraction. Scott’s lighting, which uses several clever tricks, including a strobe sequence, is much better. Courtney Butt’s costumes are spirited, but I’m not sure why sound designer Julian Evans introduces two of the play’s three acts with portentous, epic movie-like music.
The Artificial Jungle is produced by Theater Breaking Through Barriers, a company devoted to providing opportunities for disabled actors. The play, though, seems to have outlived its shelf life; whatever barriers it may once have broken through no longer seem to exist.
The Artificial Jungle
Clurman Theatre/Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through July 1
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).