Dallas — Would you take the bait if a marvelously friendly and sympathetic realtor offered you a great big fixer-upper in a nearly deserted neighborhood practically free? All you have to do is sign the contract, get water and electricity working, and you’re off and decorating! What young couple expecting a baby and living in a crummy cramped apartment wouldn’t sign on the dotted line?
British playwright Philip Ridley’s darkly comic Radiant Vermin is directed with wind-up-the-robot speed by Tim Johnson in Kitchen Dog Theater’s season opener. The pointed satire, staged like an elaborate sketch against a bright white, house-shaped set designed by Clare Floyd DeVries, is clearly in the tradition of Jonathan Swift’s infamous and anonymously published 18th century essay, “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from being a Burthen to their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick.” Swift lingers on how delicious Irish infants taste in a stew or pie, what great sport it is to hunt agile, adolescent Irish boys and how nice that these impoverished folks have a product to market. After all, he implies, the British have already ravished the country, why not eat the people themselves? Swift’s elegant, terrifyingly rational essay is short, fierce and ruthlessly sustained.
Ridley’s play also aims its satiric fire power at our consumer society’s ugly tendency to regard the poor and homeless as despicable parasites to be hidden or disposed of in some way or other. Here, we meet a perky, stupidly cute young couple. Jill (a bouncy, wide-eyed Kristen Lazarchick) and Ollie (a sweetly smiling Jake Buchanan) explains to us how they got their own free dream home. Oh, and what it cost them to renovate, decorate and raise property values all around them.
Onto the stage and into their lives steps the confident, glamourous Miss Dee (a curvy, sophisticated Kateri Cale in pitch-perfect sales mode), offering the perfect house to this lucky couple. Is this warm and all- knowing woman in a stunning red jacket with glossy lipstick to match representing a government agency, like Fannie Mae or maybe the local Chamber of Commerce? Is she a smiling realtor from hell so steeped in social media and financial data about the couple that she literally knows what they most desire and the exact price they’ll pay to get it?
The fun and fury of the play is in the rolling out of answers to these questions in what is essentially a fast- moving, high-pitched morality tale that plays out relentlessly for 110 minutes without intermission.
Just inside the dream home garden, Lazarchick’s eager and bedazzled Jill begs innocent, hesitant Ollie to go ahead and sign the contract offered by the mysterious deal-maker. “Think of the baby!” she pleads.
Ridley gives his Eve even more ammunition than the Old Testament first female, and Ollie falls all over himself for it.
Before you can say “McMansions are monstrosities” or “inner-city neighborhood gentrification is a crime against the poor,” our expectant new homeowners are dealing with the accidental murder of a vagrant, the miraculous appearance of a glowing kitchen straight out of Architectural Digest, and a pop quiz on human values that is clearly going to take some long, hard and painfully hilarious rationalization. Also, what in their sagging suburban morality are our new property owners to make of the sad, sacrificial runaway Kay (Cale again, now ragged and huddled into herself) who’s turned up on their doorstep?
Lazarchick and Buchanan lead us down a pitch-black path of acquisition to their child’s first birthday party. In one fantastic tour de force, the two actors play the gracious couple and all the boring, envy- spiking, upwardly mobile neighbors they’ve invited to drop by. Be careful what you wish for. You might have to become it.
At nearly two hours, Ridley’s slap—or five—to the face of soulless, brittle materialism loses some of its sting. We get it. We are it. We’re cowering. Then he hammers home the final nail. Greed not only drives us all to the worst in ourselves, but then we cheerfully train our children to follow in our fallible footsteps.
Quite a lot to think about. After we go to the bathroom.