Mercury – Theatre Review: Stray Cat Theatre, Tempe Center for the Arts, Tempe

It’s happened again. After opening its 2017-18 season with a play that presented an unusual dilemma for both audiences and reviewers, Stray Cat Theatre in Tempe has repeated the quandary. September brought us Kiss, a drama where anything discussed became a plot spoiler. It begged the question, how do you explore a play’s successes or failures without giving things away? The answer, of course, is you can’t, and shouldn’t. To do otherwise would be to ruin the heart of what you’re discussing for others yet to experience the reveals.

Mercury by the intentionally provocative L.A. playwright Steve Yockey follows a similar path. To explain what happens is to reveal too much. But, like Kiss, you can at least talk setup and themes, and whether they work. And that should be enough.

The setting is near Portland, Oregon, plus, as the program describes with deliberate ambiguity, in one other much warmer place. Before the play moves to that certain area miles away, where mercury would definitely rise, the play introduces its characters and their conflicts on their home turf. This is what can be told.

First, there’s nice neighbor Heather (Samantha Hanna) and the highly-strung, presumably lonely Pamela (Laura Anne Kenney). They’re neighbors, close ones, indulging in a secret, adulterous love affair. Both are married and both are at the point in they’re illicit relationship where everything said and done annoys the other. Not to mention that Heather can’t find her pet dog, Mr. Bundles. As Pamela declares, that has to be the most inane pet name in the history of pets. Heather and Pamela are really not getting along.

Then there’s Nick (Cole Brackney Wandelear) and his live-in boyfriend Brian (Ian M. White) who can’t quite get the hang of commitment. To make matters worse for their relationship, nosy neighbor from downstairs, Olive (Shari Watts), regularly listens to private conversations and feels the need to worm her way into their lives, doing whatever she can to force a wedge between them for her own selfish reaons. Olive is annoying. In fact, if there’s one thing all of those characters have in common, they’re all annoying, to each other and to us. No one is happy, no one has what they want, and as things are slowly revealed, no one is really nice. Something, somehow is going to have to give.

And finally there’s Alicia (Heather Lee Harper) a chatty, ebullient proprietress of a rather curious nearby curiosity shop. Think back to Stephen King’s 1991 novel Needful Things and you’ll get the idea of Alicia’s store. It’s a place where the dusty articles on the shelf have a specific purpose. And they all come at a cost that may include something more than cash. Plus, it’s owned by a mysterious, off stage presence known as Sam (Michael Peck), never seen, only heard, possessing a deep, booming voice that broadcasts over the store speakers. And that’s as far as can be told. Scene changes that come with a loud boom, underscored by a deep bass hum is all you need to know that something threatening, maybe even supernatural, may soon occur, but how and why is for the audience to discover.

The play has its flaws. As soon as we meet her, the increasingly hyper Pamela comes across as a little too forceful; a woman so continually angry and on the edge you have to wonder why someone as seemingly composed and as together as good neighbor Heather would ever indulge in a love affair with a such an extreme type-A character. The play needs that relationship in order to head in the direction where Mercury is going, but, as written, why they were ever together in the first place may be a hard sell, particularly when Heather continually calls the irritable Pamela, ‘honey.’ “Let’s agree not to call me, ‘honey,’” Pamela insists.

Seen at its Friday night preview performance and running at a brisk 90 minutes without intermission, Mercury, as directed by Ron May, is a blacker than black comedy that uses cynicism, gallows humor, and general audience discomfort to get its laughs. Where a drama might only hint at taboos, black comedy points its finger. That doesn’t mean that events are necessarily funny, but by portraying situations and the characters themselves with such deliberate, broad strokes, the more serious subject matters of jealousy, hate, and the willingness to kill makes light of something that is practically unpalatable.

In this respect, it’s safe to say that Yockey has hit his target, even if the subject and its extremely adult approach, setup, and outcome will not be to everyone’s liking. His black comedy revels in things taboo and satirizes them while retaining the seriousness, even the horror. Yes, blood will be spilled. Whether you’ll actually laugh is down to personal taste, but if you do, it will come with great discomfort, so be prepared. But that, I suspect, is exactly what Yockey wants. Mercury is right up Stray Cat’s alley.

Pictures courtesy of John Groseclose

Mercury will continue at Tempe Center for the Arts, Tempe until December 9

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