Pretty Things, WNEP Theater, and Suspicious Clowns, Viable Theatre Company, at WNEP Theater. Zach Helm’s new play begins arrestingly with a slide show of snapshots: an empty toilet, an unmarked bottle of pills, a tube of lipstick. It’s a fine staging choice by director Patrick Jacobi: the simple poetry of the images hooks the audience immediately and suggests there’s some depth to Helm’s rickety Pretty Things. In fact it’s the only real reprieve from the play’s two hours of forced, unfocused naturalism.
This winding investigation of the intertwined fates of a married couple, both writers, is at cross-purposes with itself. A chirpy dialogue about Italian leather and American nationalism suggests Helm intends to lampoon the vacuities of urban bohemian culture. But is he trying to apply an ethical system to a moral vacuum? And the script’s powder-keg scene–played with grim authority by Jen Ellison as the tortured wife–sets off a false charge considering the antiseptic climax. “Integrity isn’t what feels good,” Ellison’s character reminds her husband–but too much of Pretty Things seems devoted to fleeting bits of sensory pleasure: John Stephen King’s acid portrayal of a queeny book reviewer, Don Hall’s padded-cell-as-apartment set design.
Aside from the opening sketch–which features a mentally challenged porn star vomiting on himself and humping his scene partner–Suspicious Clowns, the fourth in a late-night series, is a marvel. At its finest, the show comes across as a fever dream, blurring the lines between scenes: a candlelit sexual encounter in a hot spring vaults into a tense exchange between a Gypsy woman and a passerby, then dissolves into the world’s worst hitchhiking experience. If the troupe ever drops its occasional overreliance on formulaic novelty (taking a cue, perhaps, from the nudist hayseeds who enter toward the end), it’s clearly capable of putting something luminous together. But yet another commentary on the twentysomething singles scene may prove too hard to resist.