The primary reason to see "The Dead Monkey," the sprightly Woolly Mammoth revival of Nick Darke's sprightly little grotesque of a play, is its performers, particularly Sarah Marshall, reprising her role as Dolores, the frustrated California wife whose rival for 15 years has been her husband's pet monkey. As the play opens, the monkey--at last!--is dead, and Dolores sees a chance to resuscitate her marriage to aging surfer Hank (David Marks).
Marshall is said to have been stunning in the initial 1989 production (which I didn't see), and she's certainly stunning here. This is perhaps her sexiest performance, as lithe, strong-bodied, lust-filled Dolores curves toward her husband like a twisting sunflower. Marshall is both earthy and comically precise--clipping off lines like "Thank you for paying me the compliment about my breasts," and grape-chewing with an articulation of lips and teeth that would do Mae West proud. Yet there's real rage in the characterization, and pathos, too.
As you might suspect given the setup, Dolores' plans don't go particularly well. Hank (Marks at his most comically obtuse) seems to be a few bricks shy of a load, and Dolores--perhaps because he's spent most of his time on the road as a traveling salesman--hasn't realized that far from being her long-lost lover, he's a wreck and a loser. Her eyes are opened when he gets back up on a surfboard for the first time in years and wipes out, even though he has their new pet, a curly-haired pig, with him for morale and luck.
The power in the marriage shifts. Dolores gets a high-paying job at the zoo and lords it over Hank, whom she now despises. He eventually takes his revenge.
The play is peculiar in ways other than the obvious ones. The first act is like a one-act Darke desperately ended with a gimmick, and the more bitter second act feels tacked on. And despite its setting--a shack on a California beach, rendered with remorseless cheeriness by designer James Kronzer--"The Dead Monkey," the work of a Cornishman who had never seen America when he wrote the play, has a distinctly English feel to it: small, mingy, damp and hopeless. As a satirical target, California is about greedy optimism, rapacious re-creation of the self, a Faustian determination to jettison the past. No matter how many palm trees Kronzer puts on the stage, this bitter comedy about a wife trying to recover the past takes place in a cultural vacuum.
So what's left? Style, and plenty of it. Director Howard Shalwitz keeps the action spinning like a whirligig. In Marshall, he has an actress who can be almost cartoonishly artificial and yet emotionally affecting; with Marks, an actor who wallows in the comedy of grossness. And in Bruce Nelson, as the vet, he has a sprite, or perhaps an alien--in any case, something from another, more amusing world. The four combust in a mutual bliss-out.
As a whole, "The Dead Monkey" is rather like a Strindberg play about marriage that has been mixed in the blender with some garish images from American culture and a large, steaming chunk of absurdism. Though the tone is meant to be lusty, the script's true attitude toward the body seems to be disgust, and it makes an ugly kind of sense that the most sexually powerful act in the play is one of violence.
The Dead Monkey, by Nick Darke. Directed by Howard Shalwitz. Lights, Marianne Meadows; sound, Neil McFadden; costumes, Lynn Steinmetz; prop design, Eileen E. Daly. At the Woolly Mammoth Theatre through Oct. 3. Call ProTix at 703-218-6500.
CAPTION: Animal attraction: Sarah Marshall and Bruce Nelson in "The Dead Monkey" at Woolly Mammoth.
CAPTION: David Marks, wallowing in the comedy of grossness as aging surfer Hank in "The Dead Monkey."