Acting, direction, and design are all Grade A in The Mongoose, but what on earth prompted The Road Theatre Company to give Will Arbery’s head-scratcher of a script the go-ahead?
Let’s start with Arbery’s frustratingly bizarre premise, that 20-year-old Maddy (Hannah Mae Sturges) has made friends with a 300-year-old Indian mongoose named Jeff who’s living inside their walls of her family-of-five’s rundown Dallas home and who, according to a clearly smitten Maddy, has “a spirit like Jesus” and is “getting me through this.”
Is Jeff real or is he just Maddy’s way of coping with the fact that her mother Leanne (Blaire Chandler) has flown the coop and is now, according to dad Cole (Dirk Etchison), “off selling knives in New Orleans for her job,” an absence more likely related to Mom’s being, in her own words, “hardwired to be miserable.”
Meanwhile Maddy’s overweight 15-year-old brother Joe (Kevin Shipp), whom we’re told once “hit another kid with a brick [and] tried to fuck one of his friends with a lava lamp when he was six,” rages against the world and against “this fucking house [that] made me fat.”
Then there’s good ol’ boy Dave (Michael Dempsey), who first pops into the living room from somewhere back in the house wearing nothing but tighty-whiteys, immediately arousing the curiosity (and the ire) of everyone but Cole, who explains his presence thusly: “He’s my friend. He’s my friend from college. He’s staying with us for a few days. He’s Dave.”
Trying alongside the audience to make sense of all this is 17-year-old middle child Kay Bailey (Arielle Fodor), an unhappy teen whose anger, pain, and frustration might be heartbreaking in a different play.
Unfortunately, The Mongoose’s Texas brood, rather than gain sympathy, too often simply get on one’s nerves.
Interspersed throughout both acts are phone conversations performed per Arbery’s script as if both speakers were in the same space, the away caller moving about the room, picking things up, making eye contact with the person she’s talking to, a concept that only compounds the confusion of what’s real and what’s imagined.
Add to this a number of extended monologs (including Leanne’s about a bizarre incident at a train station and Cole’s about a man who kept putting big Jesuses with increasingly large penises in people’s beds) and perhaps playwright Arbery knows what The Mongoose is all about, and perhaps over the course of rehearsals its cast managed to piece it together, but for this reviewer at least, intermission came and went and I was no less clueless than I’d been throughout Act One. (Act Two, while a good deal more engaging, ends up scarcely more satisfying, and forget about ever learning just who or what Maddy’s mongoose is, or if he’s real or imagined.)
That’s not to say that cast members don’t give rich, complex, deeply felt performances under Michael Thomas-Visgar’s direction. They do, each and every one, but when an audience is not understanding, and because of this not caring, even the outstanding work being done by Chandler, Dempsey, Etchison, Fodor, Shipp, and Sturges is largely wasted on a play likely to leave many if not most in the audience dazed and confused.
Scenic designer Chad Dellinger’s grungy set is just where you’d expect The Mongoose brood to live. Sound designer Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski, composer Daniel Sugimoto and lighting designer Derrick McDaniel’s contributions are all-around top-of-the-line, but can at times add to the confusion. Michèle Young’s character appropriate costumes earn top marks as always.
The Mongoose is produced by Donald Russell. Ken Korpi is assistant director. Maurie Gonzalez is stage manager. Janet Chamberlain, Kevin M. Connolly, Michael Erger, Nora King, Zach Sandberg, and Nikki Snipper are understudies.
I don’t mind quirkiness. Some of my favorite plays, movies, and TV shows have relied on it. And I don’t mind a bit of head-scratching provided that I enjoy spending time with the characters and, more importantly, if in the end it makes some sense.
I wanted to like The Mongoose. I wanted to like it as much as the talent that took it from page to stage. Regrettably, this turned out not to be the case.
The Road Theatre, NoHo Senior Arts Colony, 10747 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood.
March 6, 2016
Photos: Michèle Young