To describe this one-acter by Gotham’s Barrow Street Theater as a cross between “The Office” and “Blue Velvet” — with Harold Lloyd and “The Little Shop of Horrors” thrown in for good measure — would suggest it was an arresting piece of slapstick noir. “Flesh and Blood & Fish and Fowl” is certainly a singular creation, but only occasionally does it succeed in practice as well as it comes across on paper. Neither as funny nor as unsettling as it promises to be, the show is more enterprising curiosity than fulfilling work.
Opening the Traverse Theater’s program for the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe, off site in an echoing St. Stephen’s church, the black comedy is set in the bleak administration office of a chain of convenience food stores. It’s all white ceiling tiles, strip lights and Post-It notes. This is where an idle middle-manager (Geoff Sobelle) bides his time, with little to do but play tic-tac-toe and avoid the sexual advances of Charlotte Ford’s toothy administrative assistant. Building a routine based on the quiet comedy of everyday frustration, he fights a losing battle with a persistent housefly, variously ending up entangled in Scotch tape and with his head in the trash can.
This is moderately chucklesome stuff, as is his mounting exasperation at Ford’s irony-free interest in inane bureaucratic business, but it would be of little consequence were it not for the surreal turn the production takes next. Sobelle’s run-in with the housefly turns out to be just an early warning shot in a full-on war with nature. Grass shoots up from the water fountain, leaves spill out of the filing cabinets, feathers billow up from the photocopier and a menagerie of stuffed animals emerges from various corners of the set.
Instead of whimsical observational comedy, the production now offers something bleaker. The flicker of the florescent strip lights and the soundtrack of grinding industrial noise suggest the heightened realism of David Lynch. The two workers who were barely in control of the man-made environment are now overwhelmed by the power of the wilderness. The change brings out their own animal passions, and they make love in a waste disposal bin. After they make a last-ditch attempt at restoring order with a presentation on an overhead projector, the animals take over.
This could be making some grand statement about man’s precarious place on the planet, but, in the absence of any deeper analysis, it is not one that justifies such an elaborate presentation. The result is a performance that is never less than intriguing, frequently surprising and yet always packing less of a punch than you’d expect.