It's a jungle out there

"The Dead Monkey" gets stranded on its strangeness; "Happy Birthday" should never be sung in a theater

It's hard to get a handle on The Dead Monkey, British playwright Nick Darke's voyeuristic peek at a dysfunctional Southern California couple, but I suspect that's exactly what the writer intends. You can almost hear him hovering in the background, smacking his forehead and murmuring, “Wow, am I creative, or what?”

The situation: Traveling salesman Hank Wandaback (Paul J. McKenna) comes home from another hellish road trip to find his beloved pet monkey dead. His wife, Dolores (Kimberly Richards), breaks the news gently, pointing to the empty cupboard — their frolicsome pet ate everything that wasn't nailed down — and suggesting monkey meat might make a hearty meal. So they cook the deceased simian. In the pleasant afterglow of a romantic dinner, each confesses to sexual indiscretions — with the monkey.

The veterinarian (Greg Lucey), whom Dolores called in to pronounce the ape dead, brings them a Macedonian curly pig as a replacement. Everything's swell for a while. Hank quits the sales job that takes him away from home and goes back to surfing, hoping to recapture his glorious youth. The pig goes everywhere with him until he wipes out, and the pig is history.

It is at this point that Darke begins to turn the comic worm. The back-and-forth ripostes (reminiscent of The Honey-mooners) become seriously malicious, and the situation deteriorates into violence. Hank is now a drunken wife abuser, and Dolores goes the way of the monkey and the pig. Darke ends the proceedings with an emotional scene of remorse.

The play might work if the first act were to make more use of physical comedy; twisting slapstick into violence would then pack a genuine punch. As is, though, The Dead Monkey seems content to loll in the doldrums of its strangeness, stranding it in a neutral zone that is neither realistic nor absurdist — as though Darke (an Englishman, after all) were studying surfers as a breed of exotic zoo animal.

Putting such alien creatures under a bell jar seems to inspire the playwright to draw conclusions about them and the society that created them. So along with the requisite Beach Boys posters and Southern California kitsch that litters the set, there are sweeping pronouncements like, “This country is a monkey's asshole,” and “We're living in the armpit of an opera singer's vest.” As if such philosophical ravings could disguise the writer's gleeful contempt for his characters, a pair of fortysomething whiners who can't put the old surfboard away.

Fortunately, neither the actors nor their director, Louis Parnell, seem to share the playwright's distaste. By demonstrating a total commitment to this material, they have humanized it as far as possible. So even though Richards and McKenna portray a hopelessly childish couple, they manage to create a believable relationship and very nearly pull off the intended poignancy at the end. Lucey as the vet provided a zany Buck Henry-ish sort of balance.

Happy Birthday (written by Diane Yen-Mei Wong, directed by Marc Hayashi) is also something of a puzzle, the mystery being why the director and the other experienced dramaturges (Philip Kan Gotanda and Diane Emiko Takei) listed on the program thought it was worthy of production. Quite frankly, it seems unkind in the extreme to expose a new writer (this is a first play) to critical scrutiny when a workshop or reading might have taught her a lot.

An old-fashioned girls-get-together-to-bond play, this one is in shaky territory from the start: It takes place at a birthday celebration for a woman who is unbelievably unpleasant and whom none of the others seems to like even a little. The partiers arrive at a fancy inn in Carmel, where their host, Hugo (William Ellis Hammond), attends to their every need and intrudes his opinion at odd and inappropriate times. (Hugo, I should say, is the only character with a spark of interest to him: He seems a shade malevolent and maybe a bit dangerous — in other words, dramatic.)

The group consists of the birthday girl, Elwynne (Karen Amano), who is an accountant; Margaret (Fe Bongolan), who owns a bookstore; Lisa (Linda Chuan), a local newscaster; and Claire (Karen Lee), a lawyer — clearly a prosperous and presumably sophisticated group. During the course of the evening, much wine gets drunk, gifts (about which Elwynne is nasty) are opened, all sorts of truths get confessed and there's a Startling Revelation.

Here's a sample of the numbing dialogue — Question: “When's the wedding?” Answer: “In about 10 weeks, and then I'll be married.” Here's a laugh line: Claire has revealed that her “significant other” is a woman. “Wait,” the ever-perceptive Elwynne says, “he's female?” (Sputter, sputter.) “But — that means you're a — a — lesbian …” (Gasp.) Then, the big moment, “Oh my god, a lesbian!!”

Oh my god.

The Dead Monkey runs through March 11 at the Phoenix Theatre in S.F.; call 721-1717. Happy Birthday plays through March 12 at S.F.'s Asian American Theatre Company; call 751-2600.

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