In the spirit of full disclosure, I should say, at the top of this review, that I not only critiqued the original production of The Artificial Jungle, but I wrote a biography of the playwright, Ridiculous: The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam (2003). Ludlam also starred in Artificial Jungle, his last of 29 plays, which he also directed. It took its inspiration from Emile Zola’s Therese Raquin, which had already inspired James M. Cain to write The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, each of which became a hit film. Ludlam also set out, with Jungle, to write a crowd-pleaser, and he succeeded with critics and theatergoers alike.
Reset in a “pet shop on the lower East side of NYC,” the play begins when policeman Frankie–who “has more morals than he knows what to do with”–tries to return a parrot to shop-owner Chester Nurdiger, because the bird doesn’t talk. But via ventriloquism, Chester persuades Frankie that the parrot indeed speaks. He also sells him some accouterments for the bird’s cage, including a birdbath, which is actually a dog’s water bowl.
The other characters are Chester’s Mother Nurdiger and his wife, Roxanne, who’s bored with her life and wants to do in her husband, à la the original Zola novel. Enter drifter Zachary Slade (played by Quinton in the original), who’s hired to do “the disgusting stuff” at the shop that Roxanne has less and less tolerance for doing herself. Zachary is eager to take the job, in spite of Roxanne pointing out that it’s “long hours, low pay.”
Hard-boiled fiction writer Cain’s writing is particularly invoked by Ludlam–with his own humorous spin, of course–by some of Roxanne’s lines, such as when, she says to Slade, “I didn’t get these lips from sucking doorknobs,” or “Love is the disease, and you gave it to me.”
With Quinton’s masterful control behind them, the sight gags begin early on, as when, given Roxanne’s filthy mood, Mother Nurdiger says, “I do wish you’d snap out of it,” as Roxanne opens a snap-tab can of soda. But the real running gag of the play is the eight piranha puppets, confined to a center-stage aquarium, that keep following the action–on both sides of the stage–in unison, from beginning to end.
In each incarnation of the story, the plot centers around Roxanne’s taking out life insurance on Chester’s life, and then recruiting a reluctant Slade to abet in murdering him. The fact that Ludlam could turn such a deadly scenario into a platform for his hilarious designs is nothing less than astonishing. And Quinton is abetted in realizing those designs by an on-target cast, three of whom especially recall the original: Alyssa H. Chase resembles Black-Eyed Susan’s Roxanne, with her tough talk and manners, Anthony Michael Lopez looks like Quinton’s Slade with every swaggering turn, and Rob Minutoli incredibly brings to mind Philip Campanaro’s muscular yet loveable Frankie with his thick “dese, dem, and dose” New York accent.
Whether or not the motive was to make the production more “reality” oriented than the original, Mother Nurdiger is played by a woman, as opposed to the male Ethyl Eichelberger, who created the character in pure, campy drag. Here she is realized with comic, mugging perfection by Anita Hollander. (Be sure to note Hollander’s crooked mouth, following Mother Nurdiger’s on-stage stroke.) And even if David Harrell does not remind one of Ludlam, he does render an adorable, foolish Chester.
The design team does its best to contribute to the shenanigans with Bert Scott’s lighting, throughout, that’s nothing less than film noirish, Julian Evans’ histrionic sound effects, and Courtney E. Butt’s colorful, playful costumes. And then there are those always attentive piranha puppets by Vandy Wood. The revival has been produced by Theater Breaking Through Barriers which is the only Off Broadway theater company dedicated to advancing the work of writers and performers with disabilities.
The Artificial Jungle (through July 1, 2017)
Theatre Breaking Through Barriers
Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street in Manhattan
For tickets call 212-947-8844 or visit http://www.TelechargeOffers.com
Running time: two hours with an intermission