The Fall of Man in Three Acts

An imaginative play uses dark humor to show our decline

An effective way to gauge how far civilization has progressed in the last 200,000 years since the species Homo sapiens first roamed the planet is to consider the evolving function of the living room rug. Neanderthals wore theirs to keep out the wind; medieval lords and ladies hung them up to bring a bit of color to stony fortress walls; and Victorian-era grave robbers favored a rolled-up, silk-knotted Persian weave as the most effective method of carrying a corpse. Our own period in history has witnessed ever more refined developments in the terrain of carpet use: When not being deployed as a luxurious surface for fireside sex in daytime soaps, the shag pile doubles as street wear for the fashionable household pet.

If the above doesn't prove our ability, as a species, to climb to the highest echelons of sophistication, I'll crawl back under the floor covering from whence I came. Yet when two characters in Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's Hunter Gatherers use their living room carpet not to make love or outfit a dachshund but to slaughter livestock for the evening meal, human civilization looks dangerously like it's about to have the rug pulled out from under its feet. Nachtrieb's riotous new comedy observes what happens during mankind's fall, showing that the distance between 21st-century, middle-class Northern Californians and cavemen might not be so great after all.

As sophisticated in its worldview as it is barbaric in its energy, Nachtrieb's wild play follows an evening in the lives of Richard and Pam, and their longtime friends Tom and Wendy, two married couples in their mid-30s. What begins as an elegant dinner party featuring a menu of stuffed mushrooms, fine wines, and the freshest lamb ever tasted within the corrugated steel walls of a split-level San Francisco loft apartment, gradually erodes into a primeval bone-dance of homoerotic wrestling, violent passions, and animal sacrifice. When the rules that govern modern-day living cease to apply — from attempting to disguise a bloodstain on the living room rug with a vase of flowers, to trying to hide the fact that you're sleeping with your best friend's spouse — Nachtrieb's Gen-Xers are forced to turn to their most basic instincts in order to survive.

Jon Wolanske and Alexis Lezin.
Daniel Brennan
Jon Wolanske and Alexis Lezin.

These four specimens of human form don't look like they'd last very long if they lived more than five minutes away from a mall, let alone in the wilderness. Employed by a "company that makes the special software for those things," Pam can imagine no greater bliss than exfoliating in a hot shower with "a full, but broken in, bar of soap." Reiki practitioner Wendy, on the other hand, is desperate for the life of a suburban housewife. The first thing we learn about straight-laced physician Tom is his obsession with finding the perfect parking spot. Richard, meanwhile, possesses a few of the fundamental characteristics of the virile, predator male (he'd fight or fuck anything that moves given half a chance), yet his happiness revolves largely around creating abstract works of art from pieces of scrap metal and puttering around the kitchen whipping up cordon bleu dishes in an apron embroidered with his name.

Even though Nachtrieb's complex protagonists are products of a sanitized, mind-numbing environment, and about as out of touch with their essential desires and the needs of the planet as they can be, they're not completely brain-dead: These urbanites live with a persistent, nagging state of guilt about the ills of civilization and their own unfulfilled lives. In fact, much of the animal energy and flinty wit of Killing My Lobster's world-premiere production (the sketch company's first full-length play) stems from watching actors Melanie Case, John Kovacevich, Alexis Lezin, and Jon Wolanske, as Nachtrieb's hapless city-dwellers, negotiate this tension between the yo-yoing civilized and primitive impulses of their characters. As Wendy, Lezin balances the febrile force of a cat in heat with deadpan criticisms of her husband's ineptitude. Whether she's carrying a Whole Foods reusable shopping bag stuffed with organic fruits and vegetables or battering her dinner guests with legs of lamb, Case's Pam — her animated facial expressions often contradicting her actions and words — is a picture of self-consciousness and self-doubt. Bouncing about the stage (and on top of his dinner guests), Wolanske's overbearing Richard generally behaves like an oversexed puppy. That being said, he's also pretty confused. "The world overwhelms me," he says in one rare moment of reflection. Kovacevich's Tom, meanwhile, is a classic, if subtly imagined, closet case.

As animal parts fly and civilized society gradually flees Richard and Pam's loft in search of better-behaved (and less-sweaty) company, the hunter-gatherer spirit takes hold. There's something cathartic, jubilant even, in the sophisticated hipsters' regression into a primal state. Yet it's kind of terrifying, too. Just like the farmyard animal that loses its life to atone for human transgression against the accepted norms of civilized behavior in Edward Albee's The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, there's tragedy at this comedy's core. The characters might find release in the pursuit of their inner savages, but their freedom from the status quo comes at a price — the indelible bloodstains on Richard and Pam's living room rug prove it. Through July 23 at Thick House, 1695 18th Street (between Arkansas and De Haro), S.F. Tickets are $20-25; call 558-7721 or visit www.killingmylobster.com.

 
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