Some people just can’t tell a joke. This proves to be a big problem for 29th Street Rep, taking its first whack at comedy after an 18-year history of producing what it proudly calls “brutal theater.” This virgin attempt at black comedy is every bit as nasty, violent and low-down dirty as “Killer Joe” and “Hiding Behind Comets,” among other noir dramas in the company canon. But funny it ain’t — not with its two leads tackling the difficult material in the manner of Sean Penn telling a dirty joke to cheer up his fellow inmates on Death Row.
Technically, actors are supposed to play comedy in a spirit of dead seriousness. But that technique doesn’t quite work with Ian Cohen’s “Lenny & Lou,” which premiered in Washington, DC, in a 2004 production by Woolly Mammoth Theater Company. The material — which deals with matricide, incest, adultery, cross-dressing and rough sex — is just too dark for the intensely realistic treatment it gets here.
Not that Sturgis Warner’s production should (God forbid!) lighten up or beg for laughs. But it badly needs a shot of absurdity — a sense of comic outrageousness to let us know it’s safe to laugh.
Cohen’s plot is fueled by all kinds of anger, beginning with the sibling rivalry between Lenny Feinstein (David Mogentale), a middle-aged musician with no talent, no job, and no brains, and his younger brother Lou (Todd Wall), a sexually repressed accountant who resents his brother for ducking his share of responsibility for the care of their widowed mother. Waves of anger also waft from Lenny’s wife, Julie (Heidi James), an Italian-American princess who has no patience with all this Jewish guilt — and even less patience with her deadbeat, womanizing husband. To show her fury, she exhausts Lenny with bouts of sadistic sex, and when that doesn’t get a rise out of him, she seduces his brother.
Fran Weinstein (Suzanne Toren), the mother of these two princes, nurses her own kind of anger. Confined to her Sheepshead Bay apartment with a full-blown case of Alzheimer’s, she occasionally comes out of her fog to rant and rave at the resentful sons who show her no love or devotion, and to brood on her own sexual frustration.
Anger is a great place to begin a comedy, but only Heidi James, as the sexually voracious Julie, knows where to take it. Throwing herself into the contorted sexual positions devised by fight director J. David Brimmer, she makes a flamboyant and very funny monster of the character.
“Today’s your lucky day,” she says, lunging for Lou’s crotch after he announces that he has just murdered his mother. “It isn’t every day a loser gets to kill his mother and fuck his brother’s wife.”
Carolyn Michelle Smith also has the right larger-than-life attitude toward this black comedy. Playing Fran’s strait-laced home health aide with the exaggerated boredom of her efficient breed, Smith gets some terrific eye-rolling going at Lou, who is frantically trying to keep her from finding his mother’s body in the next room.
Unfortunately, this sense of comic grotesquerie escapes both lead actors, who soldier on as if they were playing the battling brothers in “True West.” They get their violent moves down and they understand the inner demons that fuel their characters’ angst. But they never take us to that sublime state of comic absurdity.