Kira Obolensky’s “Lobster Alice” begins with a succulently silly moment, as Alice Horowitz, a pert and conscientious secretary at a 1940s movie studio, reads into the phone a list of supplies ordered by an expected new visitor to the office, Mr. Salvador Dali. With only slightly surprised cordiality, she proceeds to enumerate a few things not likely to be easily procured on the Disney lot: a tortoise shell, a gold fingernail file, the remnants of a 1964 Chevrolet (though, as she readily admits, the year is 1946), and, finally, “silence.”
Jessica Hecht, the quirky, appealing star of last season’s Off Broadway hit “Stop Kiss,” makes the most of her character’s genial composure in the face of such wanton absurdity. “You can only do your best,” she says with cheery encouragement as she rings off, and the funny bone is happily tickled.
If Obolensky’s play had continued to slyly juxtapose the mad and the mundane over the course of the next 100 minutes, the results might have been thoroughly delightful — the play’s premise is certainly tasty. But this whimsical riff on the six weeks Salvador Dali spent in Burbank spins off into reckless inanity with dizzying dispatch. As soon as Dali whizzes in the door and begins spitting out predictably obscure and grandiose pronouncements, Obolensky’s play begins to melt into formlessness like Dali’s famously liquid watches, dissipating into puddles of confused talk. Attempting literary surrealism, Obolensky mostly comes up with a lot of nonsense.
The play is inspired by real events, pleasingly surreal though they may now seem. The Spanish painter was indeed hired by Disney to create an animated short based on a popular song called “Destino,” aka “You Tempt Me.” He spent his six weeks on the lot working alongside an animator who was designing the animated film of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” itself a prototypical piece of surrealism.
The third principal character in the play is this animator, here called John Finch (Reg Rogers), and the play’s twisted ribbons of plot mostly concern the relationship between Finch and his secretary, and the effect Dali’s overpowering personality has on their confused courtship. Alice shortly falls under his influence (“I always wanted to be interesting,” she says early on), and soon is dragging her living room couch into the office, where she and the boss shortly re-enact the awkward date that has left them both frustrated and embarrassed. By play’s end Dali’s mad machinations seem to have led them both to an acknowledgment of their mutual feelings, but much remains obscure here.
Dali’s paintings have a crystalline clarity that makes their strange content all the more arresting, and Neil Patel’s crisply detailed set perfectly captures this effect, making the intrusion of patently unlikely objects — plastic lobsters, a giant loaf of bread — that much more jarring. But nothing else is clear in Obolensky’s play. There’s no sense of reality for the surreality to stand in contrast to.
Throughout the play, the amiable Alice and the hapless Finch behave in ways scarcely less ridiculous than the free-spirited artist, despite Finch’s protestations that his imagination is a “pin-striped, smut-free thing.” The dialogue is a quicksand of aimless absurdity and pretentious, silly doubletalk. (Dali: “It is better to die of love than to love without regret.”) And correspondences with Carroll’s heroine’s adventures in wonderland never take on any palpable significance.
Under the swift direction of Maria Mileaf, the actors do their best to animate these arch creations. As Dali, David Patrick Kelly has the toughest assignment. Unfortunately his flamboyantly physical performance and ripe accent never go beyond obvious caricature. Rogers aptly plays Finch as a man woozy with insecurity struggling to maintain a grip on an ever-wobbling world, while Hecht puts her trademark effects — an addled hesitancy, vocal inflections that adds surprises to simple sentences — to continually appealing use.
Well-received at its Minneapolis premiere, the play was hailed as an inventive exploration of the artistic inspiration to be found in chaos. Hmm. The chaos in “Lobster Alice” is everywhere apparent, but where’s the art?