Stray Dog Theatre, director Gary F. Bell, and St. Louis-based playwright Stephen Peirick team up to present the world premier of Monsters, a twisted tale of a dysfunctional couple, their siblings, and a hastily planned murder that twists and turns in gleefully scripted chaos. The contemporary show, set in an unfinished basement somewhere in St. Louis, is clever, funny, and oddly plausible. Solid direction and a talented cast ensure the company makes the most of the witty plot in a thoroughly engaging production.
Monsters focuses on brothers Jeremy and Davis and their desperate, last-ditch effort to save the deteriorating diner they inherited from their father. The plan? A murder for hire carried out at the request of two aging members of the St. Louis mafia. The brothers don't actually know the intended victim, but their regulars have given them enough details to convince them to act and make them feel confident they can succeed. There's also the lure of the $200,000 payout once the deed is done. The plan goes awry when Davis's wife Andi, who is supposed to be at work, discovers Jeremy standing over a bound and gagged Carl in her basement. Andi's sister Piper shows up with her laundry, Davis finally shows up, and comedy ensues.
Sarajane Alverson, as the sharp-tongued Andi, is nobody's fool. She eventually takes charge of the situation making it clear she's accustomed to cleaning up after her husband and brother-in-law. Alverson is all sighs, eye rolls, and exasperation until she learns of the handsome payout; then she's willing to be swayed. She has a secret of her own, that she's been hesitant to share with anyone except her sister Piper, which further complicates an already tangled situation.
Kevin O'Brien is simple-minded and childish as Jeremy, but in a good-natured way that makes his character easy to forgive (at least most of the time). He seems a little slow at times, but we soon realize that's likely just his nature. He's a bit spoiled and clearly accustomed to being told what to do, so he doesn't bother wasting time thinking for himself. O'Brien brings naiveté and innocence to the part and the character's convoluted logic trips easily off his tongue, almost convincing us that he's making perfect sense.
Eileen Engel and Jeremy Goldmeier, as Piper and Davis, respectfully, fully realize their character quirks in engaging performances. Engel gives Piper a bit of an edge to animate the character in ways that ensure the at times sarcastically funny part isn't overlooked or thrown away. Goldmeier does a similarly strong job with Davis, who is clearly smarter than his recent actions may indicate, and there's a wonderfully warm rekindling of Davis and Andi's love that's completely unexpected and welcome. Finally, Michael A. Wells is expressive and appropriately nervous in a comic turn as the intended victim, Carl. The gag in his mouth keeps him silent most of the play, but his flailing arms and wide eyed headshakes speak volumes, ensuring audience members generally realize his key lines long before he speaks.
Justin Been provides the stage design, a realistic looking unfinished basement that would fit in to almost any city neighborhood. Director Bell adds casual contemporary costumes, and Tyler Duenow creates an effective lighting design, pulling the show together nicely and giving things a comfortable look and feel. The matter of fact setting serves to further heighten the comic tension. You've likely been in a basement like this one before unless you're like Andi, who generally avoids such things do to their inherent creepiness and propensity to harbor monsters. This attention to detail is understated but important: by the show's end you may wonder whether you haven't seen a few monsters.
Peirick writes fabulous, funny dialogue with a well-developed plot that falls just this side of believable, making the show a comic treat. However, the one-act play still feels about twenty or so minutes too long. Some judicious editing to remove redundancy and a second look at Piper and Andi's birth control discussion scene, which feels heavy and out of place as currently written, may take this good show to the next level.
In its current version, Monsters, running through June 24, is already a thoroughly entertaining and laugh-out-loud funny tale with some surprisingly relatable moments. Mistakes and secrets are revealed as each member of the cast attempts to rationalize the current situation, and Carl's impending demise, while also negotiating a comically dysfunctional family dynamic. Though some editing would undoubtedly improve the show, Stray Dog Theatre has a solid hit with this genuinely appealing and funny comedy.