How, you might wonder, could a middle-aged nebbish of an accountant named Seymour Banks have become the FBI’s most wanted man in America?  The answer to this puzzler can be found in Keith Huff’s quirky, original, and entirely unpredictable dark comedy, The Bird And Mr. Banks, now getting its West Coast Premiere at the illustrious Road Theatre.

We first meet Mr. Banks, aka Ichabod or “Icky-bod” by his office colleagues, as he is sheepishly apologizing to his boss, Mr. Hartsfield, for not having caught the man who planted birdseed on their office window sill “in flagrante delicto.” Mr. Hartsfield is, you see, a man with “zero tolerance for birds.” He also has zero tolerance for secretaries who happen to get themselves pregnant—by him.  Thus, the very married Hartsfield advises pretty Irish lass Annie O’Shaughnessy to “take care of this little situation” so that they can pick up where they left off in their affair.

Mr. Banks learns about Annie’s little situation when he visits her for advice about “this tiny creature, this little bird” he happened upon and decided to nurse back to health.  Suicidal Annie, who “dotes on the birds at the office,” has just collapsed from a combination of pills and booze, so it’s off to the hospital for the improbable pair.  When asked for advice about how to feed little Peep (that’s the name Banks has given him), Annie perks up. “Have you tried worms and grubs?” she asks, prompting an astounded “You’re joking!” from the incredulous Mr. Banks.  Clearly he has come to the right Irish secretary for bird tips.

Soon, Banks and Annie have joined forces to save little Peep, still “bald as an agnostic church mouse” and a “prolific little defecator to boot.”  Annie, having spent her entire month’s rent on her hospital bill, has also gratefully accepted Banks’ offer of a spare bedroom. “You’re more than welcome to flounce about however you like,” he reassures her, then reveals that he too has lost his job—for standing up to their “amoral hedgehog” of a boss.

What happens next is but the first of many surprises, some amusingly odd, others of a more gruesome nature, offered by Chicago playwright Huff in this outrageously black comedy which mixes quirkiness with a touch of Sweeney Todd.

Mark St. Amant directs the production (and cast) with just the right mix of whimsy and gore, and what a cast he has assembled. The brilliant Sam Anderson (of TV’s Lost and ER fame), enchanting recent Chicago transplant Jenny Kern, and Road favorite Chet Grissom are all three pitch-perfect in their roles, with Anderson particularly giving a performance so rich and multi-layered that it merits the term “tour de force” (and should be remembered come awards time).

It helps that all three actors are given delicious gems of scenes and dialog.  Mr. Banks’ favorite curse is “Oh piss and pestilence!”, and when Annie asks why Banks’ sofa is covered with a bed sheet, he informs her that his late mother was “always very persnickety about the furniture,” thus “the bed sheet protects the plastic.”  As to why the windows are all nailed shut, Annie learns that it was Banks’ long deceased father’s doing. The “unrepentant butt snuffer” suffered from emphysema, and Banks simply hasn’t had the “occasion to pull out all those nails.”

Anderson captures all of “Icky-bod” Banks’ many quirks, from his verbosity to his fussiness to his tenderness to his penchant for violence.  What we see in the first scene is but the outer skin of the onion, and as the layers are pulled away, Anderson shows us decades of pain in Banks’ eyes and so much happening under the surface. His will surely be remembered as one of the year’s most amazing comedic and dramatic performances.

The captivating Kern makes an absolutely smashing Los Angeles stage debut as Annie.  A ringer for the young Meg Ryan (with a dash of the young Nicole Kidman thrown in for good measure) yet possessing her own unique qualities (and a delightful Irish brogue for this role), Kern endears us to the vulnerable yet spunky Annie from her first appearance in a performance that grows stronger and richer as the play progresses.

Grissom gets the plum assignment of bringing to life a veritable bounty of plum roles, from the smarmy Hartsfield to the “Praise the Lord!” lounge singer of the Good News Bar And Grill to the voice of Jesus (“May I take your order?”)—and scores a touchdown with each.

Desma Murphy’s scenic design surrounds the stage with a forest of trees worthy of a Grimm’s Fairy Tale, and entirely appropriate for this very dark yet funny tale.  The superb design team is completed by Derrick McDaniel (lighting), Lauren Oppelt (costumes), David B. Marling (sound), and Christopher Moscatiello (music).

With The Bird And Mr. Banks, The Road Theatre Company continues its string of recent smashes.  As different from the nostalgic The Friendly Hour as The Friendly Hour was from Lady or The End Of The Tour, The Bird And Mr. Banks showcases The Road’s versatility and the superb talents of its company members, and begins 2009 with a bang.

The Road Theatre, Lankershim Arts Center, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
January 16, 2009
Photos: Matt Kaiser

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