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Theater review: 'The Artificial Jungle' at the Lounge Theatre

September 22, 2011 |  1:15 pm

Artificial Jungle-Domino Night
Take a dull man, his overbearing mother and his bored, sultry wife. Throw in a drifter who happens to sell accident insurance. Add plenty of hardboiled dialogue (“Nice to meet you.” “You haven’t met me long enough to know if it’s nice or not.”).

Give James M. Cain that recipe and you'd get another noir classic like “Double Indemnity" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice." Charles Ludlam, founder of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, used the same ingredients to turn out “The Artificial Jungle,” his funny, exuberantly campy farce (the last play he wrote), being revived by Buzzworks Theater Company. 

Roxanne Nurdiger (the compelling Bernadette Sullivan) lives and works with her husband, Chester (Rich Hutchman), and mother-in-law, Mrs. Nurdiger (Michael Halpin in drag), in a pet shop with an ominous piranha tank. (The stick puppets that play the piranhas get the evening’s first laugh.)

When Zachary Slade (Michael Loomis) answers her Help Wanted sign, sparks fly and a cruel scheme takes increasingly outlandish shape. The "accident prone" Chester proves frustratingly resilient, his policeman friend Frankie Spinelli (Brad David Reed) keeps nosing around, and even when Mrs. Nurdiger gets paralyzed by grief and has to be wheeled in on a dolly, her accusing eyes (Halpin’s are hilariously expressive) fill the guilty lovers with a “compulsion to confess.”

When Ludlam died in 1987, fans wondered if his plays could survive without him. “The Artificial Jungle” is flourishing in its new habitat, the compact Lounge 1 Theatre, where set designer Keith Mitchell has somehow fit an entire shop and living quarters while leaving room for athletic violence. The original production’s composer, Peter Golub, wrote the charming score, which with Derrick McDaniel’s lighting guides the audience humorously through many manic mood shifts.

Director Randee Trabitz does an admirable job with the fast-paced, physically challenging staging, although the focus in some of the more complicated scenes gets scattered. The cast is outstanding. The ending may disappoint you, but mostly because you’ll wish the play could go on longer.

— Margaret Gray

"The Artificial Jungle," The Lounge 1 Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 6. $25. Contact: (323) 960-7863 or www.plays411.com/artificialjungle. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

Photo: Rich Hutchman, left, Michael Halpin, Brad David Reed, Michael Loomis and Bernadette Sullivan in "The Artificial Jungle." Credit: Michelle Pederson.

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