ARTSMONDAY: Despite Its Darkness, ‘Dactyls’ Soars in Ex

Carlton E. Forbes

“Pterodactyls” is one of those wonderful black comedies that gives no quarter. It forces you into cold-heartedness as you laugh at, among other things, AIDS, mental illness, and suicide, while giving very little sympathy to the characters involved. Don’t say you weren’t warned. The laughs, however, are guaranteed for all but the most sensitive, and this production dishes them out with sharpness and grace.

Produced by Benjamin M. Poppel ’09 and Christine K.L. Bendorf ’10, “Pterodactyls”—directed by Allison B. Kline ’09—runs through March 18 at the Loeb Ex. The play, written by Nicky Silver, focuses on a wildly dysfunctional family comprised of the borderline psychotic Emma (Lara C.A. Markstein ’10), who remembers nothing about her past due to possibly-justified repression; her HIV-positive, embittered, and somewhat vengeful brother, Todd (Michael R. Wolfe ’09); and their parents, Grace and Arthur. Arthur (Dan G. Rosen ’10) is financially successful, emotionally distant, and possibly more attached to Emma than he ought to be: to use a favorite phrase of his to describe their relationship, “That can’t have been healthy.” Grace (Renee L. Pastel ’09), who explicitly prefers Todd to Emma, is alcoholic, materialistic, and in denial about most aspects of her family.

Rounding out the picture is Tommy (Roy A. Kimmey ’09), an impoverished orphan raised by nuns (and, in a somewhat prescient plot point for a play more than a decade old, molested by priests), Tommy, who works as a waiter, gets engaged to Emma after knowing her for three weeks. Grace hires him, complete with skirt and apron, to replace an absent maid—both in order to help him out financially and to get to know him better. Unfortunately for Emma, he becomes more enamored of Todd, his uniform, and his role as a maid, in that order, than he is of her.

The plot of “Pterodactyls” essentially results from the complete breakdown that occurs when these characters are all put together. Most wind up dead, and all wind up destroyed—and just to remind you, this is a comedy. Kline does an admirable job of keeping the pace snappy enough that there’s barely enough time for the shock of a given moment to register before the action has moved on. At the same time, Kline deftly slows down the action at the end for the more dramatic, but still unflinching, final scenes.

Each member of the cast is given standout moments, sometimes literally as the action freezes to let characters, most notably Emma and Todd, step forward and soliloquize. As Todd, Wolfe is the rational (although not always the moral) center of the play, beginning the performance with an introductory discussion of world history to the present and taking an emotionally detached view of proceedings throughout the play. Wolfe makes an excellent ironic observer, smirking his way through the events of “Pterodactyls” and deftly registering both disgust and pity on his face.

As Grace, Pastel is blithely unconcerned with everything going wrong around her, but always hints at the hysteria lurking just below the surface. Pastel’s performance is a wonderfully layered take on what could have been a stock “Desperate Housewives”-type character. Finally, as Tommy, Kimmey can flounce off in a huff like no other and is brilliantly funny, providing most of the play’s few non-guilty laughs.

The title of “Pterodactyls” is a sideways reference to a dinosaur skeleton that Todd unearths in the yard and assembles in the house, where it functions as a ten-foot-tall metaphor for death and decay that literally stares everyone in the face. It is present in various stages of completion throughout the play, adding a level of surreality—albeit plot-mandated surreality—to an otherwise fairly straightforward set. The other notable aspect of the set, which was designed by Courtney E. Thompson ’09 and suggests an apartment with a few pieces of furniture, is an abstract hanging in the back like fragmented rock, a touch that is appropriately in keeping with the increasingly broken family of the play.

“Pterodactyls” is the type of play where a character’s main concern upon hearing that a friend’s child has cancer is how it will affect the seating arrangements at a wedding. It’s a show in which the best place to put a dead friend is out on the terrace for the rest of the winter, until the ground is soft enough to bury him. While this could be taken as a disclaimer, it will hopefully function as an enticement, because while “Pterodactyls” is jarring in its twisted take on reality, it is well done and, above all, wickedly funny.

--Reviewer Elisabeth J. Bloomberg can be reached at bloomber@fas.harvard.edu.