Skeleton Crew Theatre Company

at Bailiwick Repertory

In G. Riley Mills’s Sour Milk, two honeymooners break down in nowheresville, only to fall into the hands of a family of country-gothic loonies with dark secrets in their hearts and a largish collection of corpses under the rhubarb in the garden. What follows is an odd hybrid of Sam Shepard-style weirdness and straight-ahead farce, with the texture and language of a TV sitcom. Think of those old dream-sequence TV episodes where the cast find themselves playing out Hamlet or High Noon. Now picture the cast of The Bob Newhart Show in Buried Child–and you’ve got the feel of Sour Milk.

That may sound like a criticism, but it’s not, exactly. Sour Milk is detailed, smoothly written, and genuinely amusing. If the dialogue often has a TV feel, at least it’s good TV–a little glib, but character-based and unforced. And the weirdness?

Well, the weirdness is mostly entertaining. Mills plays his gothic setup for farce: he keeps everybody moving, using lots of entrances and exits, lots of missed connections and misunderstandings. A long running gag involves a dead milkman. There’s no space for more bodies in the garden, so to keep their ma from finding out about him, sons Bernie and Billy have to lug him about from hiding place to hiding place and, in one hilarious scene, saw him up. There’s the “baby”–a full-grown sort of baby with a shiv in his diaper and an unpleasant sense of fun. Through it all the mother of the clan dithers and drops incomprehensible hints, brother Charles brandishes weapons and glowers, and the newlyweds drift closer and closer to a hideous conclusion.

The conclusion is kind of hideous actually, though it still got a bit of a laugh opening night. The problem I suppose is that Sour Milk’s paired strategies–farce and gothic–don’t really fit. The plot, finally, doesn’t really make sense. That’s always true of Shepard too, of course; but you tend to forgive iffy plotting in a guy who gives you a serious case of the ontological heebie-jeebies. Mills makes us laugh, which is another way to buy out of craftsmanship, but we still notice the holes.

The cast of the world-premiere production, by the way, is solid. Shane Stevens and Tim O’Shea as the milkman-slaughterers probably leaned too heavily on Newhart’s Daryl and Daryl for their characters, but they’ve got a nice sense of timing, and by the end, when the female honeymooner (Crislyn V’Soske) is giving them “feelings,” they’re pretty delightful. Jamie Vann as Charles works his laugh lines without ever letting up on the sense of menace–a nice accomplishment. Terry Kane doesn’t give the baby any obvious infant mannerisms, but I liked the silent, egoless way he drifted from fun to malice.

Jennifer Markowitz directs with a strong sense of what works for the audience. She puts the strong parts of the script well forward, apparently without feeling that the weaknesses have to be hidden like some dark family secret. And as either Riley Mills or Sam Shepard could tell you, that’s all for the better.