Man’s baser, brutish instincts come home for the kill in “Chimps,” Simon Block’s unsettling dark comedy that ceases to be in any way funny long before the ending. While the new work has its share of the aphorism-laden patter and verbal volleys that marked this playwright’s impressive debut, “Not a Game for Boys,” two years ago, “Chimps” is a quirkier, edgier, in some ways more trying piece that may leave audiences as frustrated as its heroine with the play’s progression from an exercise in (in)civility to near-complete social collapse.
Block’s bleak finale — an almost Strindbergian meeting of mismatched will — can scarcely be guessed from the outset, in which a young couple return with groceries to their newly purchased home to begin an afternoon of chores and, in the case of the pregnant Stevie (Ashley Jensen), self-defense classes. It is the play’s ironic way to make clear over time that in fact partner Mark (Darren Tighe) needs those very lessons, particularly when faced with visiting salesmen Gabriel (Fraser James) and the older yet greener Lawrence (Nicholas Woodeson).
The men arrive peddling Excote, a product intended to shore up the crumbling walls of a house no less fragile than Mark and Stevie’s precarious rapport. While she is the money-minded breadwinner, he exists in a perpetual liberal haze (it’s the fact that Gabriel is black, charges Stevie, that prompted Mark to let the men in), illustrating a children’s book — he’s on “B for bunny” — and irritating the unmarried mother of his child by leaving the wash on the line. With what self-esteem and machismo he possesses under threat, ex-postman Mark is a ripe target for traveling shysters, whose own rapport proves in its way as delicate as that of the couple they are courting.
For long stretches, Block effects drolly comic variations on a Pinteresque scenario by way of “Glengarry Glen Ross,” with Bruce Macadie’s clever set (well lit by Howard Harrison) enabling us to watch the two duos separately struggle for survival. While the salesmen taunt each other, their ongoing presence in the house becomes a test to Stevie of Mark’s mettle — of the same male bravura to which the salesmen appeal: “Between you and me, women have a lot of things on their mind. And none of them is logic.”
The play risks inflaming an audience to Stevie’s combative level, and if it weren’t for Woodeson, theatergoers might be climbing with frustration the same walls that, we are told, are falling down. As seen at the final preview, Gemma Bodinetz’s production hadn’t quite jelled: An appealing actor, Tighe so oversells what the English wonderfully call “gormlessness” (think of it as spineless, really) that one wonders how he ever ended up with the firmly pragmatic Stevie. Jensen, in turn, is still searching to humanize a character who, as written, comes across as a humorless nag pushed well past breaking point even before the emergence of traders whom she refers to as “the windowsills.”
Woodeson made a spry moral inquisitor in the replacement cast of “An Inspector Calls,” and he again conveys a snapdragon authority, playing a onetime poulterer on the make for whom every moment has a theory. At once “mug” (as in dupe) and mugger, he brings a vaudevillian glee to a man whose time is up — listen to him expound on the difference between “a tad” and “a notch” — while bullying and cajoling Mark even as Lawrence degrades himself. By the (somewhat over-italicized) end, “Chimps” has severed ties of gender, race and class and shown them all the door in a play which — its title notwithstanding — has more on its unnerving mind than mere monkey business.