It’s surprising how much you can feel for a guy dressed as a rock-coddling penguin.
Early in “Birds of a Feather,” actor Matt Dewberry turns up in black-and-white street garb and a ski cap with earflaps, squeezing a stone between his feet. He resembles a dorky schoolchild bundled up for recess, but in the world of Marc Acito’s nimble-witted play, now receiving its world premiere from the Hub Theatre in Fairfax, he is Roy, a wistful gay penguin who’s pretending the rock is an egg. He looks seriously goofy — but you can’t help feeling a tug at your heartstrings.
So it goes with “Birds of a Feather,” an allusive, wisecracking comedy that sounds in summary like a “Saturday Night Live” sketch but turns out to be a smart and sometimes affecting meditation on relationships (gay and straight), conformism and the construction of public identity. Performed by four capable actors who tackle about two dozen characters, “Birds” riffs on two true tales of avian celebrity pairs: Pale Male and Lola, red-tailed hawks who built a nest on the facade of a ritzy Manhattan co-op; and Roy and Silo, male chinstrap penguins who (after playing house with a rock) incubated an egg and raised the resulting chick at New York’s Central Park Zoo.
Both plumed couples became boldfaced names in the 21st century’s first decade. Roy, Silo and their youngster, Tango, famously inspired “And Tango Makes Three,” a children’s book that sparked controversy for its perceived challenge to traditional family values. Pale Male and Lola landed in the news when residents of the Fifth Avenue co-op removed the hawks’ nest, provoking public outcry.
Acito’s play, cannily directed by Shirley Serotsky, lets us eavesdrop on the fowl as they bicker, coo and cope with celebrity status. While fame is exhilarating, the birds find, it’s also oppressive and confining, like zoo cages. (Sound designer Veronika Vorel and lighting designer Andrew Cissna drive home this point with pops and flashes that evoke cameras going off.)
Conventional notions about sexual orientation are pretty confining, too, if you ask Silo (Dan Crane), a fretful, intellectual bird whose weightier ruminations (“I’ve often thought that our black and white coats were a symbolic representation of a bifurcated nature”) are lost on the showtune-loving Roy. In Serotsky’s staging, the penguins hang out on the lower tier of a cement-gray set whose rear wall sometimes displays projections of New York vistas. (Robbie Hayes is scenic and projection designer.)
Up a flight of steps is the domain of the hawks, who — in a resonant touch — are also played by Dewberry and Crane. Dewberry, who exudes befuddled sweetness as the penguin Roy, radiates macho swagger when he dons a red-and-silver jacket to play Pale Male. Crane, a picture of edgy street cred when he portrays Silo in jeans and fingerless gloves, adopts preening-diva mannerisms and a frilly vest to depict Lola. (Debra Kim Sivigny devised the costumes.)
Rounding out the cast are Jjana Valentiner and Eric Messner, who play humans grazed by the birds’ stardom — most notably, unhappily married CNN anchor Paula Zahn and her real-estate developer husband, who live in Pale Male’s building. In one archly funny scene, Zahn visits Loudoun County to interview a hand-sanitizer-wielding library volunteer named Chastity (a drolly truculent Dewberry) who says “And Tango Makes Three” is pornographic. “It says the penguins ‘sleep together,’ ” Chastity gripes. “So do Curious George and the Man in the Yellow Hat,” Zahn expostulates.
Occasionally, the humor in “Birds of a Feather” smacks of a comic skit, and the play overindulges in scenes that emphasize the male-hawks-are-from-Mars, female-hawks-are-from-Venus aspects of the Pale Male/Lola relationship. But, overall, there’s something satisfyingly poetic about the way the play’s themes reverberate and refract. And it’s refreshing to encounter a dramatist, and a theater, willing to take wing with such an adventurous approach to the culture wars.
Wren is a freelance writer.
by Marc Acito. Directed by Shirley Serotsky; associate scenic and prop designer, Patrick Lord; movement coach, Izumi Ashizawa. Two hours. Through Aug. 7 at the John Swayze Theatre at the New School of Northern Virginia, 9431 Silver King Ct., Fairfax. Call 703-674-3177 or visit www.thehubtheatre.org.