Chewing the Crud

Apart from a series of comic reversals that crown Act Two and the vintage lounge decor they're played against, there isn't much to recommend British playwright Ben Elton's Silly Cow, a creaky, one-note farce about inept critics and the objects of their misplaced ire. While the actors in Germinal Stage Denver's version put forth valiant efforts, neither they nor director Ed Baierlein are able to rescue the play from its many faults: The characters are broadly drawn but not sharply defined; the plot twists and turns only to stall or sputter; the underlying premise -- a chunky, hideously dressed gossip columnist fancies herself the ultimate arbiter of taste -- gets old fast. (Of course, that might be because it's truer than anyone cares to admit.)

For theatergoers patient enough to suffer scenes of tepid foolery and dead-end dialogue, however, the ninety-minute satire eventually provides a few laughs. Naturally, most of these revolve around the antics of Doris Wallace (Sallie Diamond), a ghastly creature who takes as much delight in savaging amateur actors as she does in wearing horrid clothes. Top-heavy but neatly counterbalanced by a widening ballast of bottom, Doris waddles about in a Prince Valiant wig, leopard-pattern top, black miniskirt and patterned black hose -- none of which flatter her grossly (and, through the use of several under-the-costume devices, intentionally) exaggerated curves. But her choice of couture does seem right at home in her lair of an office, which is decorated, for want of a better word, in post-modern safari: Leopard-skin furniture clashes with zebra-striped curtains, plants of every variety fill nooks and corners, primitive masks and necklaces line the walls and a single chair, shaped in the form of a human hand, sits on the other side of Doris's fur-edged desk: a not-so-subtle reminder that all who dare take a seat opposite this self-appointed critic are thereby placing themselves in the palm of her fleshy clutch. (Baierlein designed the setting, and Erica Sarzin-Borrillo, bless her, provided the decor.)

As the play limps along, we're introduced to the major figures in Doris's cable-access TV show of a life. There's Sidney Skinner (John W.B. Greene), an erstwhile publisher with ties to a European group that, through Sidney, dangles a job offer for Doris, who currently writes for a British tabloid; Peggy (Anne S. Myers), a prim office assistant; Douglas Robertson (Sam Hakim), an accountant; and Eduardo (Mark Wesley Sharp), a flashy dresser who happens to be Doris's latest fling -- or is he the closet lesbian's latest cover?

Unfortunately, as with most of the play's ambiguities, Eduardo's role in Doris's life doesn't really matter. Most of the plot's byways and side exchanges, of which there are many, seem pointless and overly contrived; almost none reveal more about underlying issues. The dialogue is filled with gratuitous vulgar references that say more about the playwright's failings than those of the critics and creative types he wishes to lampoon. And while the performers render decent portraits, one gets the feeling that the playwright just hasn't given them enough to work with.

That's a shame, because Elton's subjects -- the supposed gatekeepers of culture, their loosely related vultures and the readers who hang on their every word, regardless of context -- are ripe for comic deflation. In recent seasons, Baierlein and company have mounted a few productions that have effectively taken the air out of critics' collective moon of a balloon. While GSD's production is a noble effort, Silly Cow doesn't jump nearly as high as it should.

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Jim Lillie