Dallas — The bang-up backyard barbecue has totally eclipsed the dinner party as the status symbol of America’s dwindling and deeply anxious suburban middle class. Check out the 50 entries for deck décor alone on Pinterest. I mean, if you can’t even throw a decent laid-back backyard get-together on a handsome wooden deck equipped with a humungous Silver Giant gas grill and chairs with plush all-weather cushions, what kind of cheesy neighbor are you anyway?
Playwright Matt Lyle knows just the couple. Kitchen Dog Theater’s 2014 New Works Festival leads off with the world premiere of Barbecue Apocalypse, Lyle’s furiously funny and finally insightful comedy about a troupe of thirty-something suburbanites driven to a hilarious frenzy of existential angst as their backyard shindig goes from eager expectations to deflated humiliation and straight to hell in a slam-bang 85 minutes of life-threatening laughter. Director Lee Trull finds a brisk, rhythmic pulse for his superb cast, alternating sharply satiric dialogue with demanding physical comedy, from drop-dead falls three feet into a flowerbed to a knockout punch. Ouch! That made me laugh!
Deb (pretty Martha Harms, muscled and straining at the reins) and Mike (dark-eyed Michael Federico in adorable cream-puff mode) owners of the ugliest house in the neighborhood, have invited their hip, foodie neighbors to their definitely unstylish backyard, where the deck chairs don’t match, the lawn is half-mowed and the cook doesn’t even know how to fire up the newly acquired monster grill.
Still, Deb prefers the homemade deck to the tacky interior décor. “We’re in our 30s, and we still have movie posters in the bedroom,” she moans. Not only is his house a mess, Mike labors at a crummy job. Despite Deb’s frantic assurances, he reminds her that his so-called writing career has earned him exactly one published story in a “magazine nobody ever heard of” for which he earned $50.
The massive grill looms larger than ever. “I’m kind of afraid of the thing,” mild-mannered Mike admits to his macho buddy Win (a swaggering, smirking Max Hartmann), who comes early to deliver a few customary insults, make a pass at Deb, and brag about his own financial and sexual prowess. Win’s latest girlfriend Glory (a leggy, blonde and scintillatingly shallow Miranda Parham) arrives late after an audition for the Rockettes. Breathless and brimming over with youth and self-love, she drops names nobody ever heard and rattles lines from previous roles to make conversation.
Then the fabled foodies show up. Lulu (Leah Spillman in a wildly physical break-out comic performance) babbles about all things organic, and then dips into quivering hysteria when Deb mistakes her potbelly for pregnancy. Ash (a square-jawed and staunchly trendy-nerdy Jeff Swearingen) never looks up from his smartphone except to stop any glimmer of face-to-face talk by shoving the tiny screen in everybody’s face to “share” some YouTube video.
Can this mix of maniacs and neurotics get any worse? You bet. Mike finally pushes the right button on the grill, and Kaboom. Lights out, lights up—and we leave set designer Michael B. Raiford’s solidly convincing lumbered deck and weedy garden for a short intermission.
Lyle’s play is a kind of barbecue sandwich, really: Two plays with the same characters and an explosion in between. We know the Apocalypse will follow the Barbecue, as advertised. And it does. Big time. Action resumes a year later, and we’re ushered into bombed-out, darkly comic post-apocalyptic future of zombie movie proportions.
The most fun of the show is the transformation of the characters as they struggle for a successful survival strategy, surrounded by ransacked buildings and the whiff of cannibalism. Ragged and unwashed, the hapless become joyfully randy and resourceful, and the mighty learn a thing or two in this resurrected garden complete with traps and the catch of the day. Raccoon, anyone?
Ah, but the devil lurks at the edge of any garden. When a steely-eyed man named John (a powerfully menacing Barry Nash) shows up, the plot and actors hover in limbo for a brief moment and a cold shiver sweeps through the house. Who can come to their rescue? Who made that weird weapon on the patio table? Can comedy come of this?
Never fear: this is a Matt Lyle world, after all, and there’s a joke out there for the taking. This stripped down bunch of survivalists reach a cautious optimism, each finding his gifts flourishing unexpectedly. “For a post-apocalyptic society, we handle conflict pretty well,” opines Mike, a chastised Candide, as he starts to tell a story with Glory taking the speaking parts. Everybody forgets the body in the flowerbed, at least for the duration. The play’s the thing to make us laugh, and that’s enough for now.