On the Double
by James MacKillop - Wednesday, January 29th, 2014
The Redhouse pairs Next to Normal with Pterodactyls for a repertory event

Two repertory plays at the Redhouse Arts Center unfold on the same set. It’s a post-modern minimalist space, with lots of glass and steep white stairs designed by Tim Brown and lighted by Chuan-Chi Chan to imply the privileged classes. In both works we focus on a stressed mother, played by Laura Austin, in a fraught relationship with a son, versatile newcomer Ian Jordan Subsara. Two other players, Kate Metroka and Tim Murray, play comparable characters in both, a daughter and a potential beau.

In most other regards Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s Next to Normal and Nicky Silver’s Pterodactyls are profoundly different. In Pterodactyls the parents are seen from the children’s viewpoints to comic effect. In Next to Normal we often view events through a damaged woman whose tragic vision includes dark comic edging.

This is the second year director Stephen Svoboda has mounted two entirely different plays side by side, where audiences are invited to trace the shared resonances. Judging by the reception given last year’s pairing of Margaret Edson’s W;t and Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz, adventuresome audiences are saluting. The joint effort was rewarded at the recent Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) Awards.

Svoboda is taking on a considerable burden, but not as heavy as that of Laura Austin, who is mastering two lead roles within 24 hours. Performers don’t have to work this hard in Canadian repertories like the Stratford Festival and the Shaw Festival.

Having won both a Tony and a Pulitzer (2010), a rarity for a musical or any drama, Next to Normal arrives here with greater anticipation. Kitt’s score bears a certain relationship to those of Stephen Sondheim and Jason Robert Brown, but is more eclectic. There are quotations from Mozart and Rodgers and Hammerstein and at least a third of the selections are heart-pounding rock. It’s not a highly melodic score, but some numbers, such as the intensely felt “Light,” could live on independently in cabaret.

Diana Goodman (Laura Austin) is a trim suburban young matron waiting up for her late-arriving son Gabe (Ian Jordan Subsara). “Fashionable” does not seem the right word for her as her short hair stands on end, much like a fright wig. In another room she comforts her anxious and overachieving daughter Natalie (Kate Metroka). To Kate’s embarrassment, Diana speaks of her obligation to have sex with her husband, as if it were cleaning the closet. When husband Dan (John Keckeisen) appears, he seems supportive and smiling, and together they accept routine in the duet, “Just Another Day.” The sense of routine leads Diana to prepare school lunches, but she places the slices of bread on the floor. Uh-oh.

Not only is Diana bipolar but manic depressive as well. Such subjects are often trivialized or flattened in TV movies, a prime venue for such portrayals. A prime achievement of Next to Normal is that singing about the pain and anguish Diana brings to everybody actually deepens the discussion, while never offering false and impossible happy endings.

Further, the show makes trenchant arguments without becoming preachy. A self-assured Dr. Madden (Jason Timothy) has been treating Diana’s hallucinations with drugs for 16 years, and when she eventually says she feels nothing, he declares her “stable.” This dependency resonates across the stage with the addictions of Natalie’s stoner boyfriend Henry (Tim Murray). After Gabe helps Diana flush away the pills, she encounters another shrink with a more promising name, Dr. Fine (Murray again, with a red shirt and tie), whose entrance is marked with the howl of a rock star.

For Pterodactyls director Svoboda had to reach a little farther. Playwright Nicky Silver has a good reputation as the author of gay-themed, dark farces, not unlike Christopher Durang and the late British playwright Joe Orton. As with the master absurdist, Eugene Ionesco, Silver’s characters tend to speak in stylized staccato phrasing, unaware of how empty they sound. Unlike Ionesco, however, Silver places his meaning clearly on the surface, especially when the estranged son, Todd (Subsara), of an upper middle-class family begins to assemble the bones of an extinct giant lizard, and puts them in the living room.

Director Svoboda knows that Pterodactyls is cleverer than that. The bottom template is an ancient TV sitcom of domesticity, say Ozzie and Harriet, and over that is a hip spoof of that. Silver’s approach is to spoof the spoof.

Grace Duncan (Austin) is a drunk who can’t remember whether she’s supposed to be going to a wedding or a funeral. Husband Arthur (John Bixler) is a careless adulterer and a maladroit liar. Pill-popping daughter Emma (Metroka) is a hypochondriac with a loose grip on reality. She is courted by movie-crazed orphan Tommy (Murray), whose response to most questions is to cite the title of a classic film, Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour being a special favorite. When the senior Duncans realize they’ve lost their housemaid, they draft Tommy, who gamely dons a black uniform dress but leaves on his Argyle socks and wing tips.

The Duncans’ prime failure is not listening to one another. Arthur Duncan, a fanatic follower of the Phillies, always assumes his children do as well. While this usually serves as comic effect, the laughter ceases when prodigal son Todd arrives looked dirty and beat-up. Emma helpfully offers that his name means “death” in German. Todd confesses to having lived a reckless, self-destructively promiscuous life abroad, and he’s now paying the price for it. Shouting does Todd no good because, as if we had not noticed, all the Duncans had been shouting all along, usually without gaining much of an audience.

Running two lengthy shows in tandem is meant to provoke discussion, as it surely will. Svoboda’s method reminds one of art collector Albert G. Barnes, who perceived relationships in disparate paintings and so displayed them near each other in his Barnes Foundation so that patrons could look at them together. With patient scrutiny, they do.

For all we may contemplate about the themes of the two plays, there is much to be gained in artistic comparisons. Laura Austin is carrying the most weight on her slender body and succeeds in comedy one night and pathos the next. She can make you laugh and break your heart. And John Bixler, a Redhouse favorite, delivers a perfect, uncaring suburban father in Pterodactyls.

That leaves plenty of applause for the experienced young actors, mostly from out of town. Top among them is Ian Jordan Subsara, whose two sons, Gabe and Todd, substantially set the tones in each work. Striking brunette Kate Metroka, who looks like a medium-height Keira Knightley, stretches from the brittle caricature of Pterodactyls to the empathetic and ultimately grounded Emma Goodman in Normal. Tim Murray thrives on contrasting suitors, timing his small lines for big laughs, and Jason Timothy’s two shrinks play to startling results.

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