WHEN it first opened in 1964, Terence McNally's disquieting comic drama "And Things That Go Bump in the Night" was thought too extreme ("sick, sick, sick!" snarled one critic) for Broadway.
But times have changed -- our shock threshold has risen for one thing -- and thanks to Woolly Mammoth's unnerving revival we can now see beyond the once-daring surface details to the chillingly relevant substance of McNally's first play.
"Bump" is set in a post-nuclear future, where an eccentric family lives sequestered in a basement rumpus room, shielded by an electrified fence from some unnamed terror that lurks without. Mother Ruby, the voice of nihilism, is a deranged diva given to recording her dire musings on the state of the species. Her bisexual son Sigfrid ventures out daily to lure home a "friend," who will provide an evening's sport for the family.
Tonight's prey is Clarence, a naive idealist who arrives with a sign saying "There's something out there -- we will prevail." Clarence, who wakes up in the house disoriented and dressed in a white frock, meets ghastly-looking Granfa, who has been cynically chronicling the nightly liaisons. "People weren't meant to be this way," Granfa warns Clarence. "They'll devour you, boy." An evening of atrocities ensues, as the family mocks Clarence's vulnerable confessions of loneliness and need, feeding on his naked fear.
In "Bump," one senses the spirit of Edward Albee in the aggressive "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" gamesmanship. But McNally plays even dirtier -- his vicious games, cruel variations on childhood taunts, cause some psychic squirming among the audience. His "Bump" concerns those among us who are determined to have what they want at any cost. Blind to the rest of the world, these strongest may well "survive," but they are morally dead.
Directed by Howard Shalwitz, this revival is marked by intelligent performances, especially that of Grover Gardner, who plays Clarence with sweet gravity and sincere terror.
Considered as a whole, the Woollys' triple-play season, including "Christmas on Mars," and "N.Y. Mets," makes a strong and unified comment about our increasingly fragmented and frightening society, in which people scare themselves out of making the human connections, however unconventional, that may be our only hope. -- Joe Brown.
AND THINGS THAT GO BUMP IN THE NIGHT -- At Woolly Mammoth Theater, in alternating repertory with "Christmas on Mars" and "N.Y. Mets" through August 1.