Dallas — Trevor, a 200-pound aging chimpanzee in a camouflage shirt and orange drawstring shorts with his career on the line, picks up a banana and says, “Operator, get me Morgan Fairchild,” looking agitated and hopeful, at once. Of course, you laugh.
Slope-shouldered, and attacking his laptop with opposable thumbs and a vengeance, Max Hartman has already convinced us that primates with a TV agent from infanthood are not only struggling with their owner’s behavioral expectations, but with their ego-driven need to get cast again. I mean, an actor’s gotta work, right?
We’re in the world of Trevor, Nick Jones’ 2013 tragi-comedy that springs from the 2009 incident in Connecticut in which an adult pet chimp named Travis brutally attacked his owner’s neighbor, and was shot dead by police.
Trevor, directed with subtlety and comic spike by Tina Parker in its regional premiere at Kitchen Dog Theater, performed in the ninth floor studio at the Wyly Theatre, focuses less on the tabloid sensation, and instead dramatically imagines the warped and poignant relationship between an apparently socialized primate, happily web-surfing with the remote and slouching on the sofa, and his loving human mom/owner, Sandra (a weary, anxious Lisa Hassler wearing sturdy shoes and a tight smile).
In the opening scene, Trevor steals the keys to the car to check out a job in a local shop, and gets roundly scolded in front of Ashley (Liza Marie Gonzalez,) a nervous neighbor with a new baby and a growing sense that the primate next door is dangerous. “Trevor loves babies,” Sandra assures her.
Hartman is riveting and touching as man’s closest relative from the moment he flops on the sofa, scratching and squirming, and assessing the emotional temperature around him. One minute he’s clomping along bowlegged to the table, and the next he’s perched on a kitchen chair, caressing a distraught Sandra’s hair with his sensitive feet. Hartman’s shoulders roll back, and his forearms and hands hang low to the ground and vulnerable. What a loveable creature Trevor is. Too bad he sometimes gets a little worked up and has to leave his comfy, toy-strewn house and spend some time in his big kennel/cage, rendered in a realistic, detailed set design by Clare Floyd DeVries.
While we understand Trevor’s English perfectly well, it’s clear early on that folks in the play are winging it, extrapolating from gestures and body language what’s going on in the chimp’s head. Trevor himself tells Sandra, “Just because I don’t know what you’re saying doesn’t mean I don’t know you’re talking about me.” Like Prospero’s failure to integrate his half-monster servant Caliban into human society, a storm of miscommunication is hinted at from the outset of the play.
Jones, a writer for Orange Is the New Black, hits revealing comic pay dirt with the creation of Oliver, a hilarious Freudian figure equivalent to the striving simian’s super ego. After all, if all the world’s a stage, who’s to say a top dog can’t be a monkey?
Trevor regularly bolsters his career hopes by binge-watching the commercial he made with Morgan Fairchild (blonde, all-id Cindy Beall, vamping it up in a tight red dress) when he was a cuddly young monkey. “She’s one of the few actresses I am proud to call a peer,” he declares, in one of his regular fantasy sequences with Oliver (Cameron Cobb, shining and comically godlike in white tuxedo and dazzling smile), a fellow chimp who made it big in movies.
Oliver’s advice to Trevor on getting gigs beyond the Nature Channel is pragmatic: Don’t poop on the set, behave yourself, and “bare your gums so it looks like your smiling.” In one of his visitations, Oliver tells his adoring fan that he has retired to Florida with a human wife and half-human children. Hartman’s Trevor lights up like a glowing supplicant. We knew one parent had to be divine, right? Satyrs and gorgons notwithstanding, maybe dating outside your species is a viable path to unifying humans and nature. Jones pushes his poignant comedy into bizarre territory and gets belly laughs and wrenching jolts.
All the elements are in place for a collision of the fantasy of a showbiz chimp and the reality of an essentially wild primate, petted and other-directed, forced into the complex world of human values and demands by a distraught and grieving human. That we feel both their personalities as primal equal forces is a testament to a shockingly revealing play and a sharply honed ensemble production that makes live theater the gripping, hilarious, revealing instrument we go the distance for. Not to miss.