Wednesday, December 7, 2016

111. Review: ALLIGATOR (seen December 1, 2016)

“This Gator Needs Aid”
Stars range from 5-1.

If you’re an avid New York theatregoer excited about the arrival of another quality Off-Broadway venue, it may prove enough of an incentive to visit the new Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre way west on 53rd Street for the world premiere of Hilary Bettis’s Alligator, produced by New Georges (in collaboration with the Sol Project), a company devoted to supporting women theatre artists. 

Dakota Granados, Lindsay Rico. Photo: Heather Phelp-Lipton. 
This attractive black box is upstairs in a newly renovated office building and reached by one of the largest passenger elevators around.

On the other hand, you may be less than excited about Alligator, the play chosen for the Gural’s first production. Set in the Florida Everglades in 1999, it gives you not only an actor stomping around in the role of an alligator named Rex, huge head and all (Jessica Scott made it), but sexual deviance, murder, sex with a minor, fellatio, doggy-style sex, foul language, painful imagery, nonstop boozing, vomiting, and eyeballs torn out as you watch. The audience itself is asked to squeal like pigs in a slaughterhouse. Despite all this, and even with a wrestling match between a young woman and a gator, Alligator proves a rather toothless creature.
Bobby Moreno, Lindsay Rico. Photo: Heather Phelps-Lipton.
All the humans we meet are teenagers, beginning with the grimy backwoods (or should that be backswamp?) twins, the alcoholic Emerald (Lindsay Rico), and her protective brother, Ty (Dakota Granados), orphans who inherited their parents’ roadside gator wrestling show after they died in a car crash. Ty does the wrestling; Em wants to do it too but Ty won’t let her. Also involved is 16-year-old “searcher” Lucy (Talene Monahan), a vagabond runaway who crawls out of the glade and wants nothing more than to become Emerald’s friend, even using sex to procure alcohol (Lagavulin, in particular) for her.
Lindsay Rico, Dakota Granados. Photo: Heather Phelps-Lipton.
Then there’s the innocent Merick (Samuel H. Levine), son of the local pool hall’s roughneck proprietor, who’s about to leave the military fantasies of his video games for Marine boot camp, and his skinny, blond girlfriend, Diane, who refuses to have sex with him until they’re married. Finally, we have the African-American high school football star, Danny (Julian Elijah Martinez), now playing college ball; he brags (like someone else we can name) of the sexual conquests his exploits inspire.
Samuel H. Levine, Lexi Lapp. Photo: Heather Phelps-Lipton,
Sex, gay, straight, and in between, is on everyone’s minds, and everyone’s got secrets, some of which, when revealed, are absurd enough to be laughable (wait till you hear Diane’s). The language couldn’t be cruder, the accents are thicker than alligator hide, and violence is always imminent (boys down here enjoy driving through the glades and running over raccoons). Grittily realistic as everything is, an aura of the unreal hovers, especially when, midway through, Rex makes his dramatic appearance, after which he either speaks with portentous cynicism or lurks in the shadows, where his menacing jaws slowly open and close.
Julian Elijah Martinez (foreground). Photo: Heather Phelps-Lipton.
Rex, be it noted, is played by the talented Bobby Moreno, so good a couple of seasons back in EST’s Year of the Rooster, in which he also played the titular animal; here, apart from a lengthy, well-rendered speech about pigs in an abattoir and his athletic grappling in that wrestling bout, he's notably underused, his face hidden under that reptilian mask.
Lindsay Rico, Bobby Moreno. Photo: Heather Phelps-Moreno.
Themes of friendship, love, and trust are on the playwright’s mind (the alligator, ironically, provides a metaphoric standard), but they’re as muddled as the characters, none of whom is credible. Nor is there much believability in Elena Araoz’s staging, which, for all its use of moody lighting and live rock music, is limited by an unevenly accented cast unable to break through their roles’ conventionality.
Julian Elijah Martinez, Talene Monahan. Photo: Heather Phelps-Lipton.
The most effective contribution is made by the music, written by Daniel Ocanto, Graham Ulicny, and Sean Smith. It comes from a band Bettis calls the Furies (who have a more active role in the script than in the production), and is played from behind the slatted upstage wall that can open like barn doors and serves, along with a similarly slatted unit in one corner of the room, as the unit set.

That set, designed by Arnulfo Maldonado, is dominated by a circular pool, like one with its fountain removed and containing an inch of water. Its presence makes sense only at the end, during an extensive gator wrestling scene (staged by Unkle Dave’s Fight-House), but Araoz nonetheless stages lots of other business in it during which water gets meaninglessly splashed around (front row seats have printed warnings). One can almost see the budget item for waterproofing the actors’ shoes.
Lindsay Rico (foreground), Talene Monahan, Bobby Moreno. Photo: Heeather Phelps-Lipton.
Alligator is highly episodic so Araoz depends mainly on lighting designer Amith Chandrashaker for changes of locale, but this only increases the sense of monotony and sameness pervading the production. For all the physical action, the work is more static than dynamic, and finding anyone to care for (aside, perhaps, from Merick) is as difficult as sitting through this overlong, two-hours-and-20-minute side trip into the fetid Florida swamps.


Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre
502 W. 53rd St., NYC