Although Keith Huff’s play “The Bird and Mr. Banks” includes multiple roles and a compelling plot, at its core it dotingly spotlights a single character, the titular Mr. Banks. This is entirely understandable, because Banks is a mesmerizing creation, witty and garrulous but physically hesitant, a beguiling mixture of sweetness and savagery. The Road Theater Company’s successful West Coast premiere production of this darkly amusing and surprisingly moving show is anchored by Sam Anderson’s tour de force performance in the lead role.
Seymour Banks (Anderson) is one of those somewhat lonely people whose inner stream-of-consciousness has unobtrusively shifted into his outer dialogue; he’s so consumed with his own obsessions that the rest of the world is kept at a manageable distance. This changes one day when he saves the life of a baby bird, which he decides to raise until it can fly away on its own. Around the same time he offers refuge to his pregnant and jilted co-worker Annie (Jenny Kern). These actions lead to unexpected consequences for Mr. Banks.
Anderson is extraordinary in the role. His vocal perf is a wonder, a perfectly articulated litany of deadpan wit mixed with old congealed venom, his voice swooping in and out of the lower registers like a comic dive-bomber. He’s fully invested physically in the role, every uncertain gesture and tic building the complex reality of the character, but also demonstrating a febrile inner energy that wants to explode. Kern brings a believable Irish accent and a tart charm as Annie. As written, her character isn’t entirely credible and seems to exist mainly to humanize Banks, but Kern’s performance is skilled and charismatic enough to make that a negligible oversight.
Director Mark St. Amant stages the story’s multiple locations effectively, but his focus is properly on the acting, and his attention to character detail and emotional subtleties reaps dividends. Huffs’ dialogue for the creepy yet endearing Banks is rich and sardonic, the humor of a drag queen combined with the mind of the Unabomber, resulting in such phrases as Banks’ recurring epithet “piss and pestilence” or his description of a cigarette smoker as an “unrepentant butt-puffer.”
Desma Murphy’s multilevel, sliding panel set is ingenious, displaying such different locations as Banks’ gloomy home, a Christian bar and grill and a hospital room. It’s fronted by a proscenium arch formed by two trees on either side of the stage, their branches meeting overhead — a thematically evocative creation. Derrick McDaniel’s lighting and David B. Marling’s sound both add notably to the mordant milieu.