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Theater review: 'Parasite Drag' at the Elephant Space

August 26, 2010 | 10:18 am

Parasite drag 1
Family drama, garnished with angst and served with a heaping side of regret, has been the staple American theater dish for decades. From Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” to Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child” and beyond, the genre has come to define a national style of playwriting.

Unfortunately, it’s not so easy to wring new life out of the old misery, as Justin Tanner’s ill-conceived “Procreation” demonstrated earlier this summer with its toxic brew of dysfunctional caricature and stale sentimentality. Now at the Elephant Space, Mark Roberts’ “Parasite Drag” offers a more straightforward confrontation with domestic distress in a sincerely acted production, directed by David Fofi, that attempts to make up in somber honesty what it occasionally lacks in dramatic finesse.

Set in a modest home in small-town Illinois, the drama revolves around two estranged brothers with night and day temperaments who have reunited as their drug-addict sister lies in a hospital dying of AIDS. The play takes place as a tornado watch becomes a more dangerous warning (ah, good ol' pathetic fallacy!), and the turbulent family history that has created the longstanding fraternal rift threatens to wreak even more havoc. 

Parasite drag 2Gene (Robert Foster), a straitlaced churchgoer with an infuriating judgmental streak, operates under a rigid principle of denial. His marriage to Joellen (Mim Drew) has reached its breaking point, but he’s so convinced of his righteous nature that he hardly bothers to notice — even after his wife has just punched him in the face. When brother Ronnie (Boyd Kestner), as wild and disruptive as Gene is sanctimonious and repressed, turns up unexpectedly with his wife, Susie (Agatha Nowicki), the past finds all kinds of sneaky ways of repeating itself.

Roberts, a playwright ("Rantoul and Die") who was an executive producer on “Two and a Half Men,” has thought through the psychological profiles of his quartet, varied the vices and virtues of the characters and given them each an emotional weight. His television background (he’s currently the creator and executive producer of “Mike and Molly”) reveals itself not just in his facility for setting up situations but also in his claustrophobic sense of action, which tends to revolve around kitchen or living room chat, even as the plot spirals in melodramatic directions.

The language of the play sticks largely to a banal idiom that's in keeping with the milieu, but then, out of nowhere, an authorial voice not unlike the one that came up with the cumbersome aeronautic metaphor for the title can take over and a character as previously inarticulate as Susie starts using words like “conflicted,” "convoluted” and “highly suspect.” This Southern cutie with a dirty mouth isn’t the joke others mistake her for, but should she suddenly adopt the diction of a young teacher writing her master’s thesis?

The climax is even more jarring. As the story moves from quotidian exchanges to something resembling an expressionistic explosion in its final moments, the only thing holding the piece together is the conviction of the ensemble. Roberts provides enough substance for the actors to sink their teeth into. But this tale of two brothers can seem like a Greek tragedy trapped inside a soap opera.

-- Charles McNulty\charlesmcnulty

"Parasite Drag," the Elephant Space, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. Ends Sept. 18. $20. (213) 614-0556 or Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

Photos: Top: Mim Drew and Robert Foster. Bottom: Boyd Kestner, Agatha Nowicki and Foster. Credit: Joel Daavid