Friday, August 28, 2009

On-Stage: Shrunken Heads

Psychiatrist Robert Hyde has a lot of problems and only fifty minutes per hour with which to solve them. His ex-wife and daughter constantly demand more financial assistance than he can afford, and his most difficult patient wants more emotional support than he can comfortably offer. Her jealous husband packing heat only makes matters worse. They all intrude on Dr. Hyde’s peaceful country getaway in M.Z. Ribalow’s Shrunken Heads, now running at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Theatre Row.

Hyde would like nothing better than to spend some quiet time with Polly, his noticeably younger second wife, to discuss great literature and speak their nauseatingly affectionate baby talk. Unfortunately, their romantic weekend is crashed one-by-one by his overwrought patient Dorothy Putney, his sarcastic ex-wife Jennifer Todhunter Hyde, his daughter Caroline and her dippy hippy boyfriend Carlyle Hiram Peckinpah III, and finally the resentful, gun-toting Norman Putney. Plenty of bickering and misunderstandings follow, all accompanied by the caustic commentary of Hyde’s tart-tongued ex.

The action is fast and funny, yet is entirely contained within the sitting room of Hyde’s country home, which as designed by Daniel Krause, looks like a very elegant but comfortable living space. While there are not a lot of actual slamming doors in Heads, it definitely has that same spirit of madcap farce. Frankly, it is a very commercial script, similar in appeal to the recent Broadway production of Boeing, Boeing and the acerbic family comedy of films like The Ref. Featuring several distinctive supporting comic roles, it would be a joy to cast on Broadway.

The entire cast of Heads appears to enjoy the sharp dialogue and brisk pacing of Angela Astle’s direction. As Todhunter Hyde, the merry Ab-Fab-ish divorcee, Diana Henry is a particular standout, delivering her acidic lines with delicious relish. Producer Mel House also brings an engaging charm to Polly Hyde, the wiser-than-she-acts trophy wife.

For the most part, Heads maintains a light-hearted atmosphere, enjoying the comedic chaos of its dramatic situations. However, Ribalow seems to offer a politely muted critique of Dr. Hyde’s compulsively non-judgmental approach to psychology and life.

Witty and breezily entertaining, Heads is the sort of comedic play that has recently mounted a welcome resurgence on New York stages. Based on the full house last night, there definitely seems to be an appetite for such sophisticated farces, so be advised: its limited run ends Sunday (8/30) afternoon.