Soho Stage

at the Shakespeare Street Theater

Thirty seconds into Hyena the mystery was gone. Not that there was much to begin with. The set, which featured a cabinet full of handguns over the fireplace, told us–a la Chekhov–that a gun would go off before the end of the second act. And S.L. Schultz’s author’s note in the program told us that the play was “the culmination of a two-year exploration of teenage suicide.”

So when the lights came up and Nick, a seriously disturbed teenager, gave a troubled and angry monologue about how he hated his life–“I don’t like the real world anymore”–you could almost hear all 50-plus brains in the tiny Shakespeare Street Theater humming with the same thought: “I guess he’s going to kill himself.” And that was that: we all knew where the play was going and how it was going to get there. That left only two questions unanswered. Which of the guns would he use? And how long before he used it? Happily, Schultz found a number of somewhat interesting side issues to keep the whole thing going until the other shoe dropped (with a clunk).

The story itself makes for a very odd family melodrama. Nick’s parents, Jack and Grace, have recently split up (although they’re not divorced yet), and Jack now lives with one of Nick’s high school teachers, Dawn. This understandably bothers Nick a lot, especially since he has a crush on Dawn. Besides, his only real friend in the world, his mother’s father, has recently died. Nick withdraws from his family and spends his time in his room reading Soldier of Fortune and Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, giving angry, alienated, very oedipal monologues, and planning his glorious future as a survivalist commando.

When he’s not in his room he roams the woods and neighboring fields with a kindly 40-ish burnt-out hippy, Pike. He tells Pike about his plans to “make the world a better place” by keeping his mother safe when the revolution comes (or Armageddon or whatever–he’s never particularly clear on that point). Pike doesn’t seem to approve of Nick’s growing obsession with firearms, but he’s too passive, or too stoned, to make any effort beyond saying “Don’t point that gun at me!” Eventually Nick comes up with the idea of killing his father, and after that the internal logic of the story–never strong to begin with–falls apart completely.

The final, incredibly fragmentary 15 minutes of the play are stuffed full of unrevealing revelations. We learn that Nick’s dad’s mother committed suicide using one of the guns in the cabinet–are suicides hereditary?–and that this all but destroyed Nick’s grandfather, who began to drink heavily and one day died when he fell down a flight of stairs. (We learned both of these major revelations early in the first-act.) We also learn that this double tragedy had something to do with Nick’s dad’s becoming a mortician: “It was then I became very good with the dead.”

But most surprising of all, we learn that Nick’s dad is not the unfeeling hardass he’s been playing all this time. As this B-movie escapee father says: “Don’t you see? I’m not the man I pretended to be.” For some reason this devastates Nick, even though he despised the man his father pretended to be, and immediately his thoughts turn to suicide. The attempt itself has the most wonderful effect on his family. Nick’s problems, however, are never resolved–he just disappears from the story.

This play has potential, mind you, as a darkly ironic tongue-in-cheek melodrama in the spirit of, say, Douglas Sirk’s movie melodramas of the 50s. But as a straight bit of American naturalism, Hyena just plain doesn’t work. The psychological motivations are all wrong. A man mourning his mother’s suicide would never display the gun she used in a case in his living room. A boy would never consider suicide because he discovers his father is not the monster he thought he was. And I’ll bet the families of teenagers who attempt suicide almost never make great strides in resolving deep psychological problems in the first days after the suicide attempt.

Hyena does contain a number of refreshing eccentricities that make the play far more interesting than your average kitchen-sink drama. For one, the characters fall into monologues at the drop of a hat. At least half of the scenes begin with monologues, which have the cumulative effect of voiceover narration. I know, I know. Every beginning class for playwrights says that narration is a poor crutch. But in Hyena these monologues work–unlike much of the play’s stilted dialogue and unmotivated action. For another, Schultz has a real eye for the way men and women interact. Although Nick is not a very convincing teenager–too unemotional, really–Grace, Jack, and Dawn are drawn with a clear and informed eye. Grace’s depression, in particular, comes across well.

However flawed the story, the play never stops dead on the stage: at least until the second half of the second act, it’s never boring, for which the cast and director deserve as much credit as the playwright. Patrick DiRenna (who also directed and designed the lighting and the set) is quite good as Nick’s suave, fashion-conscious mortician father. DiRenna has a very interesting way of half-snarling his lines, as if years of accumulated anger were seething just beneath his GQ exterior. Dorothy Hickman is also good as Jack’s lover.

On the minus side, Marti Hale is not quite up to the task of playing the depressed and abandoned mother, the ironically named Grace. Of course Hale has her work cut out for her Grace’s character is full of inexplicable inconsistencies. She’s completely forgotten, for example, that her father liked to hunt, and seems honestly surprised that Grandpa and Nick used to go hunting together. Rob Snyder has clearly been miscast as Nick: although Snyder looks the right age, he’s too intelligent, too balanced psychologically, to carry off the role of an emotional time bomb. It’s hard to believe he would even consider wasting his money on Soldier of Fortune, much less blow it all on an assault rifle. It is doubtful, however, that even the most seasoned adolescent actor could have pulled off this odd, badly conceived character.

Although Schultz tells us in her note that Hyena was two years in the making, it is clear that what this play needs, more than anything else, is time–much, much more time. It needs thinking and rethinking and rewriting and, above all, reediting. As the play stands now, it shows us its cards far too early to sustain our interest for two full acts.