Review: 'Pterodactyls' Roar at St. Louis Actor's Studio

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

In Nicky Silver’s searing black comedy currently playing at the St. Louis Actors’ Studio, the playwright proposes that humans are facing their own extinction, similar to the dinosaurs; we’re just waiting for the impacting asteroid. In typical Silver fashion, “Pterodactyls” presents big highs and very grim lows, laughter one second, gut-wrenching discomfort the next. STLAS delivers an insightful, well-acted production with enough sugar to make the horrific palatable.

Nathan Bush and Whit Reichert in Pterodactyls at St. Louis Actor's Studio.  Photo by John Lamb

Nathan Bush and Whit Reichert in “Pterodactyls” at St. Louis Actors’ Studio.
Photo by John Lamb

The asteroid arrives in the form of returning long-lost son, Todd (Nathan Bush), who shatters the Duncan family’s thin veneer of respectability as he digs up old bones, literal and figurative. Having unearthed a Pterodactyl fossil in the backyard, he reconstructs the bones in the family living room throughout the play. By the time the skeleton is finally reassembled, the family will have fallen apart.

At the very onset the Duncan family seems as though they’re barely holding on to any semblance of normalcy. Family matriarch Grace (Penny Kols) is running on fumes and desperation as she dives head first into the just-announced wedding of her somewhat mad daughter Emma (Betsy Bowman) and meek Tommy McKorckle (James Slover). Befuddled patriarch Arthur (Whit Reichert) grouses about it all, the wealthy bank president uncomprehending the whirlwind of his wacky family.

Betsy Bowman and James Slover in Teradactyls at STLAS. Photo by John Lamb

Betsy Bowman and James Slover in “Pteradactyls” at STLAS. Photo by John Lamb

If the Duncans had any hope of survival, it is dashed with the arrival of Todd, the AIDS-infected, remorseless serial fornicator son. Like an asteroid, he doesn’t feel compassion, he simply impacts with impunity. The impact of the asteroid hitting the earth wasn’t what killed the dinosaurs, but the devastation that came later. Giant lizards, as it turns out, don’t take well to the total blocking out of the sun.

Once Todd returns home, the members of the family begin to dissolve into a massive mess of alcohol addiction, self-destruction, insanity and financial ruin. Bones are picked and stones are turned. Oh, they were right on the precipice of destruction, to be sure, but Todd, with his laissez-faire indifference to the total destruction of others, pushes them over the line.

Penny Kols is rock-solid as Grace, while venerable veteran actor Whit Reichert as Arthur gives a varied and captivating performance. Betsy Bowman and James Slover as the betrothed couple are strong. Bowman’s insane innocence is oddly beguiling, and Slover as the malleable fiancé adds to the comedy relief. Nathan Bush as Todd doesn’t so much act his part as ooze it with repulsive charm. Like James Dean, he is something without a cause, we’re just not sure of what.

James Slover and Penney Kols in Pterodactyls at STLAS. Photo by John Lamb

James Slover and Penny Kols in “Pterodactyls” at STLAS.
Photo by John Lamb

All of the technical aspects of the play work. Director Milton Zoth draws strong performances from the actors, and his creative staging on the well-designed, tight set, make the whole production feel more expansive than seems possible in the intimate black-box Gaslight Theatre.

Zoth keeps this pitch-black, heavy and ultimately devastating play relatively light. The play is part comedy. There are zingers and one-liners and visual gags as classic as a man in a housemaid outfit, so it’s funny too. It has to be. Otherwise it would hurt too much.

“Pterodactyls” continues at St. Louis Actors’ Studio through Sunday, Nov. 24, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. For tickets and information visit the STLAS website.

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