Having just survived a plane crash, Phyllis, one of the main characters in Nicky Silver’s play “Fat Men in Skirts,” stands on the beach and shares some thoughts.
“I loathe the beach,” she says, going on to complain about her ruined shoes and vent about her cheating husband, who is safe in Italy. He’s a director who “makes heartwarming films about lovable extraterrestrials, mostly,” she tells us.
Along comes her 11-year-old son, Bishop, who is restless and hungry. She tells him to look through the survivors’ pockets for cigarettes and a little later asks, “Can’t you go play with the dead bodies or something?”
And those are just a few of the many shocks in this play, which is currently being presented for socially distanced audiences at the Black Box Performing Arts Center in Englewood. Coming later is cannibalism, incest, murder and insanity, with a lot of laughs along the way. For “Fat Men in Skirts” — as dark and, at times, gruesome as it is — is ultimately a comedy.
Think of it as a cross between “Lord of the Flies” and “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” that goes down some intriguing rabbit holes, as when Phyllis monologizes about transvestites (she grew up with one as a neighbor; that’s where the play’s title comes from) or Bishop displays a bizarre obsession with Katharine Hepburn, and comes up with an endless series of insulting names to call his mother. There is also a lot of going back and forth in time in this play; characters who may or may not be ghosts; and sequences that may or may not be dreams.
I don’t think it’s a great play: I kept hoping for some kind of significant larger vision to emerge out of the craziness, but it never did. But it’s so gleefully “out there” you can’t look away. And this production does not attempt to soften Silver’s brutality in any way. Under the direction of Matt Okin, the four cast members (Shari Cohen as Phyllis, Michael Gardiner as Bishop, Arthur Gregory Pugh as both Phyllis’ husband Howard and a therapist, and Ilana Schimmel as both Howard’s porn-star mistress Pam and a suicidal cheerleader) keep the absurd twists coming at a feverish pace. Gardiner in particular projects so much energy as the unhinged Bishop that he always seem to be about to burst out of his skin.
These characters are in each other’s faces from beginning to end; I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such a large portion of a play devoted to yelling. There is a danger, of course, in numbing the audience with such an over-the-top approach, but it can be invigorating as well.
Still, I tended to like some of the play’s quieter moments the most: the reflective but deeply weird monologues, and an exchange between Howard and Pam where they constantly contradict themselves (with Pugh and Schimmel falling into an almost mechanical rhythm with each other).
Pam: I’ve seen every one of your movies.
Howard: Oh. Would you like a drink?
Pam: No. I don’t drink.
Howard: Why not?
Pam: I gave it up.
Pam: I drink. I don’t know why I said that.
Howard: Well, would you like one?
Pam: Yes. No.
Howard: Are you nervous?
Pam: Yes. Not really. …
Howard: Should we go to bed?
Pam: That’s very direct.
Pam: I like that in a man.
Howard: Do you?
Pam: No. Of course not.
The Black Box Performing Arts Center in Englewood presents “Fat Men in Skirts,” May 6-9 and 13-16 at 8 p.m. Visit blackboxpac.com.
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