Muskrat Love

It may or may not be the end of the world. Certainly there are a lot of frogs and locusts out there, and all the trees are falling down. But work goes on at Tower Labs, where some sort of top-secret pharmaceutical project is underway—if you can really call it work when the sole researcher has locked himself in the lab and refuses to let the manager, receptionist or new developer in while he paces around trying to do the work himself, even though he’s not qualified to develop the drug himself.

Maria Giere Marquis and Casey Fern in Believers. Photo by Jim Norrena.

This is the rather confusing setup to Believers, Patricia Milton’s new play premiered by Wily West Productions at Stage Werx Theatre, now housed in Intersection for the Arts’s former digs on Valencia Street. Wily West devotes itself entirely to new plays by local playwrights like Milton, who wrote the corporate comedy Reduction in Force that Central Works premiered last year.

It turns out that researcher Rocky is working on a love vaccine to protect people who’ve been hurt in love from falling in love again. New developer Grace, hired explicitly for her supposed lack of ethics, is there to create a love potion instead, because love is great and everyone should be in love all the time. All you need is love. Love makes the world go round. Love is a many-splendored thing. And of course Rocky and Grace are old college sweethearts; he’s still bitter about it in a way that defines his entire personality and motivation for everything, and she flirts outrageously with him without a care in the world.

Oh, and that whole biblical apocalypse outside doesn’t really enter into it, except that the receptionist is a recently born-again Christian who can hardly let a sentence go by without misquoting the bible. The biggest plague the company has to deal with is the barrage of complaints from consumers of its latest mood stabilizer, who find themselves attacked by horny muskrats because of muskrat glands used in the medication.

Obviously, this is a very, very broad satire, but it’s also hopelessly muddled. Wily West producing artistic director Sara Staley’s staging is terribly overwrought, with the actors hollering as if they’re in an outdoor amphitheater when in fact Stage Werx’s space is quite intimate.

Quinn J. Whitaker’s set creates a rather detailed if scantly-stocked lab, but the reception area is really just a closet with a tiny writing desk. Rick Homan sits perched above the lab playing live musical accompaniment on acoustic guitar and looking down on the proceedings with an impassive expression.

Jon Fast is particularly all over the place as the maniacally agitated manager Sam, who can’t say anything without literally shaking the walls with his gesticulations. His role limited to badgering and glad-handing the staff, Sam speaks almost exclusively in car metaphors, rattling on about throttles and clutches and exclaiming mouthfuls like, “What the holy Hannah in a Hyundai is going on here?”

Kate Jones has a bright and sunny disposition as chirpy scripture-mangling receptionist April May, but whatever humor there is in her cheerful incoherent sermonizing and baffling admiration of Sam is hampered by the frantic staging. That’s a shame, because some of her phone greetings are amusing (“We take the sin out of medicine”), and the sexual metaphors more so (“Nobody has had Moses in my bulrushes since last summer”). It actually takes a long time to learn that the company is even called Tower Labs, because in Jones’s egregious Southern accent it winds up being pronounced as “Talla Lights,” or at best “Talla Lance,” whenever April answers the phone.

Casey Fern is entertaining if one-note as the jumpy researcher Rocky, constantly wincing and pacing and scowling like it’s the end of the world—which I guess it is, but no one really cares about that. Maria Giere Marquis gives the subtlest performance as Grace, which is funny because there’s nothing remotely subtle about Grace, who’s always coming on strong to Rocky despite (or maybe because of) his obvious distress. She’s also constantly quoting epigrams, because every character needs a distinctive verbal tic.

There’s some clever wordplay in the script from time to time, but anything Milton might have to say about the pharmaceutical industry or the human heart is lost in the ludicrousness of everyone’s behavior, as unreal and inconsequential as the undefined apocalypse outside.

Wily West Productions
Through August 25
Stage Werx Theatre
446 Valencia St.
San Francisco, CA

Show #75 of 2012, attended August 9.

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