Playwright Greg Kotis has a keen ear for genre cliches. His “Urinetown” libretto hoists the socially conscious musical on its own pretentious petard, while his new farce is built on the laconic diction familiar from the works of Steinbeck and McMurtry, or films like “The River” and “Places in the Heart.” Call the genre what you will — rural neo-noir sounds about right — it gets an amusing sendup in “Pig Farm,” a Looney Tunes extravaganza of pork and passion on the plains receiving a nifty production on the Old Globe’s smaller arena stage.
First view of the farmhouse kitchen crafted by Takeshi Kata — grimy linoleum, beat-up icebox and stove — suggests things ain’t goin’ well on the old homestead, and that guess is accurate: Pig farmer Tom (Ted Koch) feels his livelihood slipping away; wife Tina (Colleen Quinlan) needs a baby bad; and hired hand Tim (Ian White), hormones raging, dreams of escaping the slops.
Meanwhile, a guv’ment man (Ken Land) is coming to check on the fecal sludge situation in the district — someone’s dumped pig’s excrement in the local river — and demanding an accurate swine count, or else.
Setup in broad outline, if not in its goofy specifics, reflects the concerns of real-life U.S. farmers and environmentalists, but there’s no sociological or ecological message to be derived here. Story is just a peg on which to hang Kotis’ pungent dialogue, crisply delivered by all with the same sullen intensity and squared-off jaw we know from every farm movie this side of “Tobacco Road.”
Cliches are rampant, and they ping: “They’ll hunt you down like a dog.” “I got feelin’s for you.” “Yup, that’s the truth of it.” These farm types never talk when they can pronounce: “I’m the people!” “I hate that hate; oh, I hate it.” “Looks like you got the fire in you tonight.” (The key words there are pronounced “yeew,” “faahr” and “t’naaat.”). They’re also given to objectifying themselves at every opportunity: “A woman can wait only so long.” “You’d be surprised how long a man can live without a heart.”
As that last attests, Kotis hasn’t lost his “Urinetown” habit of taking figures of speech absolutely literally. The hit musical’s heroine has her leading man “listen to my heart” by shoving his face into her bosom. In “Pig Farm,” Tom says to Tim, “Here’s my marker,” pulling a thick black Sharpie out of an elegant silver box.
Kotis jacks up the psychological hyperrealism through a hot-‘n’-heavy romantic triangle and passions right out of Inge’s “Splendor in the Grass.” After a pig stampede and the arrival of EPA goon squads, we’re thrust into Sam Shepard country, with beatings and shootings and lots of work for fight director Steve Rankin. It all goes on too long, but there’s good fun to be had along the way.
Helmer Matt August keeps tongues firmly out of cheek and elicits a remarkable amount of variety within the hard-bitten style, especially from Quinlan and White. Actress admirably channels Jessica Lange’s dual nature as Midwestern matriarch in “Country” and off-road sexpot in “The Postman Always Rings Twice.”
The magnetic White wraps together wastrel Paul Newman and naif Brandon de Wilde from “Hud,” with a little James Dean tossed in. Thesps Koch and Land have fewer tasty opportunities, but they hold their own.
August doesn’t hold back on the farcical excess, but does limit the mud and blood. The filth on faces, limbs and costumes seems painted on, perhaps out of deference to aud’s close proximity, but the fakery clashes with and undercuts the rest of the production.
Paul Peterson’s sound design and Chris Rynne’s special lighting effects successfully convey a wacky world above and beyond the aisles of this arena space.