Brian Dykstra is working hard to turn ranting into a new genre, and if he succeeds comedy may not be safe. When his compulsive characters find the right words and rhythm, their verbal flights take off in psychological, political, and just plain pathological directions—leaving some badly skewered subjects in their wake.
That Damn Dykstra (the boxed set) makes an evening out of eight one-acts, slams, and monologues, some of which are performed by the actor-playwright. Dykstra usually gives his sketches simple foundations: roommates debate how to paint the patio furniture; women skewer a common ex in a clinic waiting room; actors argue about a performance. But each scene soon escalates through looping meta-logic and fast talk, frequently rising into an obsessive-compulsive delirium.
What’s the difference between designating a stairway “out of service” and “out of order”? A middle-management woman, denied access, wants to know. She interrogates a security guard, and in the ensuing conversation they riff on servitude, servicing, and the “service economy,” among countless other fine points. Elsewhere Dykstra’s contentious creatures argue over “primary” versus “base coats” of paint, wonder if they can describe a mosaic as “Mexican-y,” and catalog insults after a catfight (“You said ‘witches’ and followed it up with ‘wenches’?”).
Director Margarett Perry bookends the comic sequences with two solo rants performed by the author (who also regales the audience halfway through with his cranky thoughts about the production and its unfortunate titling). Dykstra opens with a slam in lyrical free fall, in which he spins the tale of Jimmy Jack Rude’s come-ons to a Mean Queen. In red trench coat and wraparound shades, Dykstra nods to each character as he rides the rhymes; as Jimmy whispers entreaties into the Queen’s ears, Dykstra glides into a soft scat and the word flow feels unstoppable. He closes the show with a jarringly topical solo, returning the rant to its angry primal form. With indignation and disgust Dykstra exhorts his audience to “Just Say No” to “Enron fucks,” “couch-potato thighs,” and “the narcotic of imported crude.”
A few scenes stretch beyond their natural life span, but saying that Dykstra overwrites would be missing the point: By definition a rant courts excess. In the best sketches Dykstra displays striking comic powers: His people are both tortuously rational and obsessively doting, and he often builds their conjectures into absurd and hilarious dimensions. An early sequence, pitting a would-be environmentalist against an apparently insensitive lout, even brings to mind Shakespeare’s cunning clown scenes; in amicable but competitive verbal sparring, the jester twists his challenger’s words and triumphs. When the writing occasionally loosens elsewhere, the neuroses Dykstra dwells on can come across as standard Seinfeld-like harping on ordinary minutiae (as in a dialogue about watching paint dry and water boil). But when Dykstra trains his accusatory eye and ear on the smug fools among us, he can make you think as hard as you laugh; as he asserts at the close, “I’m here to tell/they’re going to hell.”
Danish playwright Morti Vizki also writes in verbal swells, though he has darker visions in mind. Mark of Cain, written in 1996 and making its U.S. premiere, transposes the biblical myth of homicidal brotherhood into a murky modern setting, while keeping it shrouded in a mist of abstraction.
Cain and Abel, who describe themselves as “sons of celebrities,” lament not living in Paradise (“Mom and Dad always speak so highly of it”) and having to farm for a living. They alternate between professing brotherly love and resenting each other’s whining; though given to making ponderous pronouncements about Yahweh and the apocalyptic future, they mostly just care about parties, birthday presents, and getting laid. Lucifer, a femme fatale in a red-and-black suit, arrives at the brothers’ homestead from the bowels of hell. Her task is “to swallow up all their oxygen,” by insinuating her way into their lives and igniting their primal desires; she makes them feel powerful, pitting brother against brother and pointing the course of history toward Auschwitz (“built by your kin for my kin,” as Abel prophesies).
Vizki crams the monologues with opaque reflections that never quite coalesce meaningfully; in director Jens Svane Boutrup’s abstruse translation, Cain and Abel say things like “Couldn’t I be the one who wanted his depth?” The text seems to call for a production either emphasizing the domestic implosion caused by the stranger, or contrasting the brothers’ frustrated exile with Paradise behind them. Unfortunately neither arc emerges from the rudimentary production here; Boutrup needs to anchor the play’s fecundity by creating a more tangible landscape with his small stage. (The production’s design gives us little to latch onto.) Bolder spatial choices might also have helped the cast find surer footing: Sarah Gifford makes Lucifer’s devilish intentions clear enough, but Vincent Sagona (as Cain) and Michael Evans Lopez (Abel) don’t seem connected to their grandiloquent apprehensions about salvation and the ultimate fate of humanity. Sometimes a production needs to ground itself on the stage before rising into lofty abstraction.