In Constance Congdon's eccentric comedy "Tales of the Lost Formicans," anthropologists from outer space are pondering 20th century life as it unfolds in a Colorado subdivision. It's a befuddling task, but they've figured some things out.
They've deduced, for instance, that the curious chrome and vinyl artifact that occupies the center of the stage at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company is a kitchen chair, although they refer to it as a "sit upon." And they know that it goes with a table, which they pronounce "tah-bull." They seem to have a sense of what families are and how they come together in neighborhoods or "random habitational clustering."
But on the whole, they're mystified by these unusual creatures. What do they want? What's the point of their comings and goings? And what are those crystal droplets that sometimes spring from their eyes?
In one respect the intergalactic scientists are no different from the objects of their scrutiny. Congdon's earthlings can't make much sense of their own behavior, either. They're doing their best to cope with divorce, rebellious offspring, Alzheimer's disease and suburban sprawl. But they've lost their direction. Whether at home or on the freeway, the question constantly on their lips is "Which way?"
Basically, "Formicans" centers on Cathy (Jane Beard), who leaves her philandering husband and returns home, her teenage son in tow, to live with her parents. Once there, she quarrels a lot with her mother. Alzheimer's claims her father. Her son runs away. Keeping things and herself together is the most that Cathy can aspire to.
By coming at matters from a slightly cockeyed cosmic perspective, however, Congdon rejuvenates what would otherwise be a fairly routine domestic drama. God isn't necessarily dead, but He's definitely been misplaced in this part of the globe. When two of Congdon's characters, outraged over the malfunctioning machines in a coin-operated laundry, ask indignantly who's running the store, they are actually dabbling in metaphysics without knowing it.
Original as it often is, "Tales of the Lost Formicans" is also something of a dramatic pudding. The term, I confess, was put in my head by Cathy's old girlfriend, Judy, now a divorced mother herself with a brood of hellions to support. What, she wants to know at one point, happened to all the idealism and good intentions of the 1960s. Someone took them away and what was left of society "just coagulated like bad pudding."
A certain coagulation is also characteristic of Congdon's script, which is conceived in brief, often unconnected scenes and studded with bizarre, free-floating imagery. Cathy's father curls up on the back seat of an automobile and, in the process, traces the whole terrible regression from adulthood to infancy that is the curse of Alzheimer's. A neighboring male nurse, who believes "we're controlled by aliens and they're idiots," is indeed visited by a trio of tripped-out stooges.
Some scenes are run forward and backward. Dreams coexist with reality. The action bounces all over the place in keeping with Congdon's belief that change happens so fast these days that the blink of an eye can land you in a brave, new world. I can't say you'll always detect the method to her madness, though. Sometimes her innovations seem no more than camouflage, hiding the soap opera that lies underneath.
The Woolly Mammoth has always liked plays that portray life as out of kilter and are slightly out of kilter themselves. "Formicans" fits right in. Under Tom Prewitt's direction the cast, doubling as aliens and earthlings, moves effortlessly from the detached efficiency of the former to the messy emotionalism of the latter. Jane Williams Flank's stone-slab set marries suburbia to Stonehenge, and lighting designer Christopher Townsend showers it with starlight. Jane Schloss Phelan has provided the costumes -- casual wear for everybody, dark wraparound sunglasses for the aliens, plus one extraordinary monster suit for an imaginary Martian, passing through.
Beard's performances invariably reveal a surprising depth behind her sunny good looks. As Cathy, she's a resilient Everywoman -- bewildered but not broken by the collapse all about her. John Mann is her obstreperous son; Tom Quinn, her disintegrating father; and Nancy Grosshans, her fretting mother. You'll have no trouble believing any of them.
Robin Baxter, as Cathy's vulgar girlfriend, delivers the brass, while Michael Willis gets his laughs as the nurse who is convinced that tiny slits in the sky are letting in extraterrestrial invaders. Round and rubbery, Willis is a natural comic actor (no one wears loud, wide ties to better effect), although he doesn't exactly qualify as love interest, which seems to be part of his assignment here.
After witnessing the rocky relationships of parents and children, the alien scientists return to the 25th century -- very much interested in what they've seen, but not exactly sure what it means. You, too, may head home in a state of interested discombobulation.
Tales of the Lost Formicans. By Constance Congdon. Directed by Tom Prewitt; set, Jane Williams Flank; costumes, Jane Schloss Phelan; lighting, Christopher Townsend. With Michael Willis, Jane Beard, Tom Quinn, Nancy Grosshans, John Mann, Robin Baxter, Hugh Nees. At the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, in repertory with "Hurlyburly" through Aug. 5.