Fort Worth — Can you make comedy—even “grisly, pitch-black comedy”—from a bloody carcass and a battered marriage? Theoretically, yes, but Stage West travels a bumpy road with their world premiere of Aaron Mark’s Deer, whose intermittent laughs can’t make up for a journey that doesn’t quite feel worth the mileage. It’s another edgy pick for Stage West, a company that’s been thinking—and succeeding—outside the box in recent seasons with stellar productions of new plays including The (curious case of the ) Watson Intelligence; Mr. Burns, a post-electric play; and Stupid Fucking Bird.
Playwright Mark (Another Medea) has a talented way with a line, but this script simply feels a few workshops shy of ready, set, go.
Director Garret Storms nonetheless pulls unusual, energized performances from John S. Davies and Lisa Fairchild as Ken and Cynthia, a long-married Manhattan couple (he’s a novelist, she’s a teacher) driving at night to their country place outside the city. Clearly, this marriage is well on the way to road kill. Cynthia clutches the wheel, glazed eyes staring ahead, deadly silent. Ken bounces in the passenger seat, chatty as hell, babbling about his latest manuscript and how ready he is to “make looooove” the minute they hit their surprisingly chic shack in the Poconos. Garbled radio sounds break up each short scene in the car, meaningless noise to match the non-conversation they’re having.
Then Cynthia hits a deer.
As a marital bump in the road, this one’s a doozy—and their reactions couldn’t be less alike. Ken, disgusted by the blood and mess, begs his wife to drive on toward their weekend “alone together.” (They ought to put that phrase on a button; this is exactly how this couple goes through life.) Cynthia coos at the carcass, treating Doe the Deer like a hurt child, sure that a little TLC will bring “her” around. Of course they wind up with a deer sprawled on the mid-century sofa—something to come between them yet again, like their worries about money and careers and sex and aging parents and adult kids who wear out their welcome. These two want to get away from everything and everyone—perhaps more than either of them understand.
There is a certain symmetry to the plot. In the manner of a “Deer X-ing” sign, Mark sets his two characters eternally at cross-purposes. They suffer from the opposite of magnetic attraction: if Ken reaches out, Cynthia withdraws. If she takes on a sudden wifely warmth, he backpedals as fast as he can. They will meet emotionally for only one intense, intersecting moment, then move on in their stories.
Mark’s handling of their marriage has an acidly humorous, utilitarian feel; it’s the portrait of a relationship that’s become all business and stress. “Did we ever” really like each other, Ken wonders? But layered onto the realism is a level of strangeness and surreality that, like the dear departed Doe, doesn’t entirely hang together. We don’t quite follow Ken and Cynthia’s whiplashing changes of tone and attitude, and Doe (who malingers too long on the sofa) only adds to the muddle. We know we’re looking at a metaphor, but our efforts to connect the dots of Mark’s meaning aren’t well rewarded—and in the end, the macabre amusement of its presence onstage begins to feel stale.
Set designer Michael Sullivan curates a clever mix of Scandinavian and Adirondack for the woodsy cabin; its sharply angled-in windows frame bare branches that, perhaps prophetically, seem upside down and pointing to earth, not heaven. Luke Atkison’s warm lamplit interior and softly blue night-sky haze make this a place we all might love to have…but not at this price. Jordan Rousseau’s rumpled deer, tongue lolling, caused enough “eew”-ing in the seats to satisfy its maker; and Kellen Voss, who also contributed to Stage West’s The Nether and The Explorer’s Club, makes imaginative choices in sound design and music.
Deer has a few memorable moments, but doesn’t live up to the high bar Stage West set for itself in recent seasons. We’ve come to expect that when this company picks a very new play, it will knock our socks off…and Deer doesn’t.