Family Farce

'Fuddy Meers' reflects on the absurd

If Eugène Ionesco had been hired as the script doctor for Memento, and the whole project had then been handed to director Preston Sturges, you'd have something much like Fuddy Meers, the not-easy-to-classify play by David Lindsay-Abaire being presented in Live Theatre Workshop's late-night Etcetera series.

At first, this seems to be straightforward--if one can use that word in such a context--theater of the absurd. Our heroine, Claire, wakes up one morning to be told by her husband, Richard, that she suffers from a rare form of stress-related amnesia. Every time she goes to sleep she loses her memory. Richard kindly brings her coffee and a picture book to reintroduce her to selected elements of her life.

As soon as Richard leaves the room, out from under the bed bounds a man with a limp, a lisp and a ski mask concealing what turns out to be a damaged face. Oh, and he has a strange aversion to bacon. This man claims to be Claire's brother, and he's here to save her from Richard, who is dangerous. He spirits her away to a country house inhabited by Claire's mother, who waddles around and communicates in stroke-garbled speech; "income" means "come in," "fassbreak" is "breakfast," and other terms are mangled in other ways. "Fuddy meers," for example, is her term for "funny mirrors," the distorting glass at the carnival that throws back a twisted reflection. Rather like this script.

Add to this cast of characters Claire's surly pothead son, a female highway cop a bit too eager to use extreme force, and a childlike escaped convict in a stolen JC Penney suit who speaks uncompromising truths through a foul-mouthed hand puppet named Hinky Binky.

But despite the antics of the wacky characters, Fuddy Meers becomes less an absurdist farce than a darkly comic psychodrama. It makes more sense than Ionesco would, and the characters, almost all of whom have their unsavory aspects, also possess more redeeming features than you'd find in one of Feydeau's more bitter farces.

And, yes, there are a couple of honestly touching moments. Not just Hinky Binky's near-death experience once he's stabbed during an altercation, but the mother's attempts to communicate despite--or through--her "stroke talk," and the final little scene, in which the family realizes that as Claire slips into sleep they may lose her all over again.

"My plays tend to be peopled with outsiders in search of clarity," Lindsay-Abaire has said, and that's certainly the case with Fuddy Meers, in which most of the characters, in one way or another, try to shake loose from their unpleasant pasts. That's true even of Richard, who scolds Claire's hostile son, Kenny, for his marijuana use even while allowing the kid to toke up in the car. Richard wasn't always a straight-arrow; indeed, he was a grievously flawed fellow once, and now he's a bit too ready to borrow Kenny's joint for a hit just to "take the edge off." That's about when the highway patrol officer pulls them over.

As if to emphasize the play's more serious side, director Nicole Stein (delightfully light as the title character in Blithe Spirit, LTW's mainstage show) plays down the madcap physical mayhem. She's content to draw the comedy from the characters and their lines rather than from hyperactive stage business, which is probably a smart decision given LTW's tight performing space.

But considering this fairly realistic approach, it's odd that Jodi Rankin plays Claire's early scenes with such exaggerated wide-eyed innocence. Claire is a woman of optimistic perplexity--every morning, her life is as fresh as the coffee, and this does have its advantages. But Rankin conveys Claire's sweetness as a blank doofiness. For a production that probes the honest pain behind the zaniness, Rankin's approach is not sufficiently tragicomic, although it does gain nuance as the play progresses.

Inevitably, it's Millet, the guy with the puppet, who steals every scene he's in, and Stephen Frankenfield plays him with a more honest innocence and confusion than Rankin brings to Claire early on. This character (these two characters, counting Hinky Binky) could easily become annoying, but Frankenfield elicits great sympathy for Millet. Similarly, Kristi Loera as the stroked-out mother, Gertie, takes her role seriously, despite the babble and the funny walk.

All the cast members work well with each other, including Christian Armstrong as the limping man, Steve McKee as Richard, Sean Marbry as the sullen kid and Holli Henderson as the cop, a more hard-edged character than usual for her.

OK, so the script ultimately hangs together on a thread of ridiculous coincidences, and the playwright loses track of who's supposed to be where and in what order near the end when people are racing out of the cellar, swinging shovels and puppets. But it's pointless to raise a rational argument against lunacy, even in Fuddy Meers, which turns out to be surprisingly down-to-earth.

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