Don't let the title fool you. "Fat Men in Skirts" conjures up a vision of the worst of current theatrical comedy, that combination of self-conscious cuteness and sitcom timing that seems to have migrated, Ebola-like, from Burbank to Broadway. But while Nicky Silver gives in too often to the temptation of cheap laughs, topical references and ironic mugging, the play is ultimately redeemed from its worst moments by a clever and genuinely surprising treatment of sexuality and its most famous pitfall, the Oedipus complex.
"Fat Men in Skirts" (directed by Jose Zayas, produced by Rivks Levine) opens with Phyllis Hogan (Sarah Burt-Kinderman) and her 11-year-old son Bishop (Ryan McCarthy) marooned on a desert island, the only survivors of a plane crash. Through flashbacks, we learn that Phyllis was on her way to Italy for a last attempt at reconciliation with her philandering husband, Howard Hogan (Jed Willard), when the plane went down.
At first, the desert island scenario is played for laughs; as Bishop complains of hunger, Phyllis pulls a huge butcher-knife from her handbag, with the instruction: "Go cut the arm off that nun." But as mother and son gradually realize that they are not going to be rescued, they begin to drift towards insanity--Bishop, neurotic and stuttering from the start, talks obsessively about Katherine Hepburn, while Phyllis clings to her vanity about clothes and make-up in order to fend off the horrible truth.
As the play intercuts the surpeal island scene with Bishop's memories about his miserable childhood and his parents' failed marriage, it becomes clear that what we are seeing is as much about the savagery of "ordinary" life as about the savagery of the jungle. When Bishop finally turns bestial, leading inevitably to the rape of his mother, we know that it is the whole past, not just the Lord of the Flies situation, that has driven him to the act.
And by the time the final scenes show us Bishop undergoing psychoanalysis in a mental hospital, we realize what has been building all along: the whole play is an allegory for male sexual development, with each stage of the classic Oedipus complex brought to life in gory detail. Bishop on the couch, caught between infantile mother-love and the prospect of a more mature sexual relationship, is the play's real setting.
The roles of Phyllis and Bishop are extremely difficult, spanning the full range of emotion from slapstick to criminal insanity, and they are mostly handled well by Sarah Burt-Kinderman and Ryan McCarthy. Though McCarthy is unconvincing as the young Bishop--his stuttering remains an irritating mannerism rather than evidence of his inner conflcits--he plays the older, savage Bishop with the necessary energy and conviction. His long, shouted monologue about masturbation would sink the play if presented without utter confidence; fortunately, McCarthy is equal to the task. While it is troubling that McCarthy remains in that one loud register for the whole play, it is difficult to see how else the character could be acted; his presence on the stage begins to grate, but it is supposed to.
As Phyllis, Sarah Burt-Kinderman progresses nicely from vain air head to vamp to madwoman. Her sarcastic banter with Bishop in the play's first scenes has something, appropriately enough, of Katherine Hepburn's archness. She is especially impressive in the rape scene, where Phyllis' revulsion and hysteria are truly disturbing. Even in the play's worst scene, in which Phyllis recalls a nightmare about fat men in skirts which comes dangerously close to moralizing about sexual intolerance, Burt-Kinderman is effective and at ease.
Nora Dickey and Willard each take on two roles--Dickey as the father's mistress and a girl in the mental hospital with a crush on Bishop, Willard as Bishop's father and psychiatrist. These roles are largely instrumental, and they are executed well; Willard, constrained by a stereotyped character of the father, achieves some genuinely dramatic scenes with McCarthy in the mental hospital. Both of Dickey's roles call for broad comedy, which she performs expertly. As she proved in last year's "Goodnight Desdemona," Dickey has a knack for zaniness, and she is funny almost every time she's on stage. Popo Martin, the girl in the hospital, is an irritating caricature, but Dickey does all that can be done with her.
"Fat Men in Skirts" achieves what most current plays, much less most student productions, rarely even attempt: a serious, clever examination of a difficult topic, which doesn't fall over itself in the search for laughs. More than any Harvard show in some time, the acting and direction never let the script down; it is an impressive achievement and a satisfying night of theater.