The Commissary at Culver Studios provides September’s most unique theatrical venue as Pop Up Theater, Inc. debuts its entertaining if uneven revival of Nicky Silver’s absurdist AIDS-era tragicomic farce Pterodactyls.

Blue-eyed-blond golden boy Todd (Cambrian Thomas-Adams) serves as our guide to the Philadelphia Main Line Duncans: harried patriarch Arthur (Skip Pipo), his Dolce-&-Gabana-clad wife Grace (Donna Goldfarb), and their hypochondriacal daughter Emma (Melina Chadbourne), just about to announce her engagement to orphanage survivor Tommy (Ben Rawls) when who should show up but our narrator, back home after a five-year absence with a family-shattering bombshell of an announcement to make.

Not that there’s anything in Pterodactyls’ opening scenes to suggest anything other than a wacky, ready-for-its-laugh-track sitcom. Todd’s opening history-of-the-world lecture features some deliciously deadpan one-liners. (“Hitler invented fascism and Rose Kennedy invented the telephone.”) Tommy compares Emma’s hair to marzipan and her neck to licorice. Grace complains about the “hobos needing a bath and a companion” that make shopping in the city such a trial these days.

And then Todd shows up from the train station, confusing his sister (“We’ve never met! I don’t have a brother”) until Grace’s memories of Todd at ten (“We ate lard and salty beans.”) make it clear that selective amnesia may figure among her daughter’s many imagined maladies.

Grace has just announced her intention to throw Todd a welcome-home party when that bombshell gets dropped, and with AIDS-related deaths at near-peak status when Pterodactyls made its October 1993 debut, it’s no wonder what Todd’s announcement is.

Not that things darken all that quickly, or at least not yet.

A seemingly unfazed Arthur launches into memories of ten-year-old “Buzzy’s” star turn as his school’s Oliver (though Todd insists he was playing “a man pursued by mysterious strangers on his birthday until he is driven to rape” in Pinter’s The Birthday Party.)

Grace has Tommy take absent maid Flo’s place, black skirt, white apron, stockings, and all, Emma develops a psychosomatic case of blindness, and Todd finds himself increasingly obsessed with assembling the pterodactyl bones he’s dug up in the back yard.

In the World According To Nicky Silver, it’s not just the Duncan family who are about to go to hell. It may well be our entire civilization.

Director Melanie Weisner does a mostly effective job of handling Pterodactyls’ tonal shifts as summer turns to autumn turns to winter in a production that would benefit considerably from a stronger lead performance.

Goldfarb has her moments as Grace, but a more experienced, nuanced actress would make the appearance-obsessed Main Line matriarch the multifaceted linchpin she deserves to be.

Pipo, with credits a mile long, fares considerably better, and never more so than when Arthur has reached the limit of how much family Sturm Und Drang he will take, and the lovely Chadbourne gives Emma an appropriate mix of drama and ditz.

Still, it’s Pterodactyls’ two young male stars who give audiences the best reason to check out its Pop Up Theater Inc. revival. Thomas-Adams gives Hitchcock blondes a run for their ice-queen money as the seductive, enigmatic Todd, and the equally charismatic Rawls shows off both a light-comedic flair and real dramatic chops, even in maid’s drag.

The “upstage” half of Culver Studios’ commissary has been transformed into a spiffily appointed living room, though the “pop-up” nature of the production means mostly on-and-off lighting. (Not a single designer receives program credit.) Costumes are character appropriate, though Emma could stand an extra outfit or two. Multiple scene changes executed in silence underline the lack of a professional sound design. (Jonathan Katz is credited with music, but if there was any other than the three Sinatra songs on a loop before the show and during intermission, I didn’t notice.)

Pterodactyls is produced by Grafton Doyle.

An AIDS-era period piece still relevant in Trump-era America, Pterodactyls retains much of its original power to delight and dismay. Pop Up Theater Inc.’s 2017 revival may not get it all right, but there’s enough going on in the Culver Studios Commissary to make it worth checking out.

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The Commissary At Culver Studios, 9336 Washington Blvd., Culver City.

–Steven Stanley
September 9, 2017
Photos: Edo Tsoar



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