Meat Market

Decades before self-help books, therapy sessions and touchy-feely television shows complicated our understanding of relationships, playwrights like Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Edward Albee were crafting absurdist dramas that illuminate the problems of human communication.

These days, an absurdist outlook on life isn't limited to artistic endeavors. In fact, that philosophy seems as though it's second nature to the five characters in Nicky Silver's Food Chain, a play that uses the trappings of the Therapy Age to put a contemporary twist on what was once a groundbreaking style. But even though Silver's comedy uses elements of Beckettian farce to spoof '90s-style narcissism, the Theatre Group's production seems more like a labored romantic comedy.

Silver wastes no time raising the notion that the Me Generation hasn't always learned how to form healthy alliances with others. The play begins with a scene between a self-absorbed poet/artist and a somewhat domineering crisis-hotline volunteer. Depressed that her husband, Ford (Stefan Bolton), has been missing for two out of the three weeks they've been married, Amanda (Susan Lyles) calls the hotline to share her anguish -- by speakerphone, of course -- with a sympathetic stranger. Noting that she's successfully completed the requisite six hours of telephone-counselor training, Bea (Carla Kaiser) offers to help Amanda deal with her difficulties. Instead, while Amanda wallows in her grief ("I went into a shame spiral," she remembers), Bea presses for details about her sex life. Despite the fact that Amanda pursues a bevy of tangential topics and Bea abandons active-listening techniques in favor of downing a can of Cheez Whiz, the pair ultimately agree that, "The food chain is as it always was -- men rule the world."

Then we're introduced to Serge (Salvador Benevides), a Calvin Klein underwear model, and his former lover, Otto (Howard Semones), who has gained an enormous amount of weight since the two last slept together. In addition to inflating his stocky frame (Semones wears a fat suit underneath his clothing, which has the intended effect of making him look like a Thanksgiving Day parade balloon), Otto has stretched the truth about the nature of his relationship with Serge, maintaining that the two were a serious item when Serge insists that their brief time together amounted to nothing more than a fling. In Act Two, we learn that Ford and Serge are lovers, Amanda and Otto are long-lost high school acquaintances, and Bea is related to one of the four characters. Everyone eventually winds up in Amanda's apartment, where three of the characters agree to sleep together and the other two resolve to engage in a few more rounds of self-improvement exercises.

Except for Bolton, who has perhaps a half-dozen lines, and Semones, whose choppy, monotonous delivery reduces his character to the unremarkable smithereens of neuroses, the actors render realistic portraits that are earnest enough, even if they're not always engaging. But director John Mandes fails to effectively address the play's stylistic underpinnings. For instance, when Serge confesses that he can't help being terribly good-looking, Benevides sounds so matter-of-fact about his "plight" that we don't know whether to ignore him or laugh at him. Similarly, when Otto asks Serge, "Do you think you'd love me again?" (while simultaneously attempting to stuff his face with food and throw cereal about the room), Semones doesn't color the episode with any sense of delusional import. Which means that Serge has to consider Otto's off-the-wall request seriously instead of slapping it aside as the farce it is.

While their efforts are well-intended, Mandes and company never take Silver's send-up to an appropriate level of illogical ridiculousness. As a result, this two-and-a-quarter-hour production never articulates the absurdity of being a stranger in a world where everyone knows everyone else's innermost desires.

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Jim Lillie

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