Having last teamed up to scale the dramatic mountain of “Hecuba,” director Carey Perloff and thesp Olympia Dukakis find themselves a molehill in “Singer’s Boy.” Score points for idiosyncratic taste, at least, but given American Conservatory Theater’s all-too-rare commissioning of new works, this perilously thin absurdist whimsy by Leslie Ayvazian (“Nine Armenians”) seems a very odd choice indeed.
The first scene is set inside the gingerbread-style house where Grace (Dukakis) is stuck caring for her gruff father (Gerald Hiken) andsenile mother (Anne Pitoniak). She’s literally stuck there — ivy has so overgrown the frame that the characters can’t leave. “OK, I’ll make breakfast, we’ll eat, then … we’ll see,” Grace sighs. Life once glimmered for her — the only backstory fragment here being that she once played concert piano in France — but now its opportunities seem to have passed by.
Outside-world hollering proclaims the arrival of an odd-jobbing “boy” (Stephen Caffrey) whose shears might yet liberate the metaphorically imprisoned trio. There follows some amusing business as Dad climbs the chimney to the roof, while the “boy” climbs downward to engage skittish Grace in a dance. However, the old man, soon frightened by his adventure (“I’m cold! I’m hungry! I must urinate!”), is not so easily gotten back down, nor are the vines easily cleared away.
A second scene reveals the vegetation-encrusted house exterior, with men now visible on top and women shouting from within. The lad’s robust, sensual lover (Michele Shay) arrives to woo him back in song. In the final scene, she returns — now abandoned by her boytoy — and leads the residents in embracing their newfound, ivy-trimmed freedom. This is the kind of play where a character (Dukakis) ends by raising her arms heavenward to welcome life, life, life! as stars twinkle in the background.
Ayvazian’s staccato, repetitious language (“I like to talk. I like to visit. I like to visit and talk,” etc.) and sometimes antic humor recall Ionesco on the surface. But her themes of “failed” familial entrapments and gotta-take-a-chance individual escape are more banal than the willfully cryptic text can mask. Add in heavy-handed verbal cues (from the obvious “fall from grace” to an ongoing Aztec-temple sacrifice reference), and “Singer’s Boy” is soon doomed to fulfill its own recurrent exchanges of “What’s happening?” Nothing.
Perloff’s given it a flattering production, amplifying the script’s mild sense of fun. Though perhaps too down-to-earth an actor to make this construct work, Dukakis gets ingratiating mileage from Grace’s desperation. The very engaging Hiken, game Pitoniak (largely limited to crying “Hello!”), and likable Caffrey also make the best of a wan lot. Shay gets the least fortunate role, having to embody all “earthy” liberation while crooning wordless siren phrases that seldom stray past two notes.
Early preview audiences were said to have booed the play (while applauding performers), which was listed as running 97 minutes but clocked in opening night at 20 less. Such last-ditch pruning no doubt helped, but can’t disguise the central dramaturgical frailty. Tech aspects — from Loy Arcenas’ apt abstract-minimalist set to David Lang’s score — are sharp. Still, this work might have ultimately played better in a smaller-scaled, less prestigious package.