2 min

Real excitement

Amidst family chaos

LONG NIGHT'S JOURNEY INTO DAY. Paul Dunn and Ross MacKenzie star in a black comedy about one of the most dysfunctional families ever seen on stage. Credit: Paula Wilson

Some nights, the act of going to see a new production, worthy enough in itself, can be transformed into real excitement by a single actor’s performance.

That is certainly the case with Pterodactyls, now showing at the Tarragon Theatre. A black comedy about one of the most dysfunctional families seen on stage since the Tyrones in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Pterodactyls was written by Nicky Silver and first produced in New York in 1993. It is now being given a well-deserved Toronto premiere at the Tarragon Theatre in a production directed by Mathew Kutas.

The actor concerned is Sarah Dodd, who has been labouring away in the theatrical fields of the Stratford Festival for the past few years. In playing an alcoholic Philadelphia matriarch she illuminates the stage with her comic presence. On her opening night performance, Dodd started off, like the actors around her, a little too arch and shrill. However, she quickly made adjustments and settled on a tone and style that was captivating for the rest of the evening.

She produced a brilliant performance that showcased her ability to elicit belly laughs while allowing the brittle ferocity and distanced sadism of her character to shine through.

The first act of Pterodactyls is an uproarious farce featuring a returning prodigal gay son and a society matron determined not to recognize the family chaos around her. The suburban Philadelphia household also contains a hypochondriac daughter with short-term memory loss, a distanced, baffled, yet vaguely threatening father and a potential son-in-law employed as a crossdressing housemaid.

The dark and melodramatic second act features the (asymptomatic) HIV-infected son fulfilling his role as a malevolent angel of death. Given the difficult mood change at the intermission, Dodd’s first-class performance was the only one totally successful in negotiating the major change in style and content that occurs in the second act.

The other performances were not as well structured – in a couple of cases they started out on a high emotional plane which left little room for nuance as the evening wore on. The theme of the play is individual alienation and the failure of family. Unfortunately, alienation can “act out” on stage as simple hostility, not easy for an audience to watch.

On the positive side, Paul Dunn is a gifted character actor who looked as good in a maid’s uniform as Ross McKenzie did in a body hugging tank top. Don Allison gave a solid performance as Dodd’s husband and Charlotte Gowdy made a good stab at depicting the even more than usually conflicted moods of a bride-to-be.

The simple yet wonderfully suggestive set and lighting designs of Laird Macdonald, along with the costume designs of Kim Dooley and the set decoration work done by Dawn Starkman must be recognized. The visual artists involved with the production have done triumphantly good work and are, along with Dodd, the stars of the show.

* Pterodactyls continues at the Tarragon mainspace (30 Bridgman Ave) until Sun, Jun 20; call (416) 531-1827.