Stage Two Theatre

For its production of The Beetles, the first play by a young California playwright named Malcolm MacDonald, the Stage Two Theatre in Waukegan is offering a “no-questions-asked money-back guarantee.” Anyone who doesn’t think The Beetles is worth the price of admission can get a full refund.

Offering a money-back guarantee could prove to be an even bigger mistake for the theater than producing a young playwright’s first play. The Beetles, misleadingly billed as “an ecological comedy with great hairdos,” is a little confused to say the least. It’s about a teenager named Raymond (James Hassett) who becomes obsessed with the Egyptian unicorn beetle, which he sees on a television documentary titled “The Evolution of Beauty.” According to Dr. Kate Algoode, the scientist who narrates the documentary, this beetle and its mate survive by carrying a half teaspoon of water to a delicate desert plant each day, keeping it alive. Then the female beetle lays its eggs inside the flower of the plant, which provides food for the offspring.

Raymond is so taken with the beauty of this that he decides to go to Africa and observe the beetle for himself. The trip is a major source of the play’s purported comedy–and of a lot of preposterous plot twists. Raymond travels with Armando (Eibhlin Glennon), his mother’s hairdresser, and Teri (Elyse Mirto), his father’s secretary and lover. While in Africa, he receives an astonishing letter from his beloved Granny (Imogene Grace) explaining that he is descended from the great Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. But he doesn’t find any beetles.

When he returns home, Raymond confronts Dr. Algoode (Jan Graves), and she admits she created the whole documentary in a studio, telling him “Imagination is always more beautiful than reality.” As for the hairdos, they’re primarily symbolic: When Raymond’s mother (Margorie Engesser) discovers that her husband (Gene Cordon) is having an affair, she literally lets her hair down. Her sky-high beehive turns into waist-length curls, and her husband complains that she has changed from the perfect wife to a wild animal.

The Beetles is full of pose but devoid of conviction or substance. MacDonald tries to be topical with the environmental theme, but he displays no real interest in the environment. He tries to satirize the American family–a doting wife, her sexist husband, and their hopelessly misunderstood son–but his insights are superficial and his satire is lame. And despite all the bizarre plot twists, he fails to generate any suspense. Many beginning playwrights are pretentious, and some are sophomoric, but MacDonald manages to be both.

In addition to the script problems, director Bryan Simon hasn’t found an effective tone for the play. The opening scene is done as a modern ballet; family scenes are played like Second City spoofs of TV sitcoms; other moments are as full of absurdities as a Christopher Durang play. This lack of consistency leaves the actors adrift–they give performances that range from awkward and tentative to downright bewildered. The Beetles may come with a money-back guarantee, but that sure doesn’t mean it’s quality merchandise.