From the moment the lights go up on a mobile command center somewhere in the Iraqi desert where a hooded man finds himself strapped to a chair, a pair of jumper cables attached to his nuts by a military officer whose first words are “Whatsup, mothafucka?” you know you’re no longer at your grandparents’ Lonny Chapman Theatre as The Group Rep debuts Gus Krieger’s outrageously dark, outrageously foul-mouthed, outrageously funny The Armadillo Necktie.
The man about to get his scrotum roasted is Bruce Walker (Morgan Lauff), accused by a military fatigues-clad Buckley Dunham (Matt Calloway) of being a mercenary assigned to bring home Ulysses Simpson Armadillo (Bert Emmett), a U.S. Army colonel whose two-week assignment in Iraq has dragged on these past twenty years due to “unfinished business” of a decidedly personal nature.
It’s only when New York Times reporter Madeline Sainz (Jennifer Laks) arrives to vouch for Bruce that Buckley is convinced that the supposed mercenary is indeed the cameraman he has claimed all along to be, sent to document Madeline’s interview with the mysterious Armadillo. (Apparently it’s a lot easier for two civilians to locate the colonel than it’s been for the U.S. military.)
The shabby bathrobe, ratty briefs, and little else that Armadillo sports when making his grand entrance are but the first sign that there may be bats in the colonel’s belfry. Add to that his claim to be eighty-five, then ninety-five, then a hundred-and-five years of age, his habit of speaking in stage directions (“He sees that the coffee is ready and sets about the task of pouring it into two nearby cups”), and his insistence that the American Revolution was “waged in the name of claiming the tails and heads of whale carcasses discovered along the British coast,” and what you’ve got is a man who’s nuttier than a fruitcake and every bit the “public relations nightmare” the U.S. government considers him to be.
Completing The Armadillo Necktie’s cast of characters is the hijab-garbed Aminah (Shanti Ashanti), who shows up out of nowhere on her own mission, one that may help Armadillo fulfill the one he’s been on these past twenty years.
Press materials give away more about The Armadillo Necktie’s plot than I’m willing to do here. Suffice it to say that Krieger’s pitch-black comedy has more twists and turns than a bagful of Iraqi pretzels requiring a particularly high level of concentration.
Still, those who pay close attention (in particular to mentions of “Op slash code word togni”) will be rewarded with a play that entertains, engrosses, shocks, and provokes discussion in equal measure. (Could Colonel Armadillo’s refusal to exit Iraq be a metaphor for a certain country’s insistence on remaining in place, despite how murky our reasons were for even being there in the first place?)
Under Drina Durazo’s dynamic direction, an all-around terrific cast deliver one memorable performance after another, beginning with Emmett’s unrestrained tour-de-force star turn, one that would do either Jack Nicholson or Bill Murray proud.
An electric Calloway exudes charisma, intelligence, and acting chops worthy of a TV series lead. Lauff follows his stellar debut in That Lovin’ Feelin’ with even more exciting work here. A powerhouse Laks is equal parts sensitivity and spunk as Madeline. The lovely Ashanti does fine work as Aminah, whose mastery of English grammar is just one of The Armadillo Necktie’s many mysteries.
J. Kent Inasy’s mobile command center set and dramatic lighting are as stunning as 99-seat designs come. Costume designer Angela M. Eads scores high marks for authenticity as do property designers Todd Andrew Ball and Hisato Masuyama. Durazo’s sound design is topnotch too, and William Hickman has fight-choreographed some athletic, graceful swordplay.
The Armadillo Necktie is produced for The Group Rep by Troy Whitaker. Lauren Peterson is assistant director, Chris Winfield assistant scenic designer, and Gabrielle Sciabbarrasi costume assistant. Alicia Patterson is stage manager. Larry Eisenberg understudies the role of Armadillo.
Were playwright Krieger a bigger “name,” you might expect to see The Armadillo Necktie debuting at South Coast Repertory or the Geffen, it’s that exciting and edgy a play. That a 99-seat theater company in NoHo got it first is an explosive coup for The Group Rep.
The Group Rep, Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Boulevard, North Hollywood.
June 26, 2106
Photos: Doug Engalla