Love's Tangled Web: A Locked-Door Mystery at Annex

According to Dictionary.com, deus ex machina refers to the ancient dramatic tradition of introducing divine intervention in order to resolve a situation that the playwright couldn't. To my knowledge, this device has never worked to a theater critic's advantage. Until now.The unexpected collision occurred during last Saturday's performance of Love's Tangled Web at Annex Theatre. I had just witnessed the unsettling unveiling of a particularly pale and flabby ass at the end of Act 1, and dashed out to the ATM during the 15-minute intermission. Upon returning—well within the time allotted—I found the door locked, and anyone who's been to the Annex knows there are two floors separating their door from anyone who might hear a knock from below.In 20 years of reviewing shows, I had never been so relieved or vexed by a problem. Sure, the show is a steaming pile. But I figure, hey, they've gone to the trouble of putting it onstage, and potential audiences have the right to be warned as consumers. I owe it to all concerned to watch as their ship sinks under its own weight and to report the entire debacle. But just this once, some force greater than me insisted that Enough Is Enough.So let's tell you what I do know: There's a cute little cottage set designed and constructed by Kit Newman. But what you're more likely to notice is that the scenery is being chewed to splinters by some of the worst-coached actors to trod the boards anywhere within a 50-mile radius. Imagine junior-high kids performing sketch comedy from a really bad episode of Vicki Lawrence's mean-spirited sitcom Mama's Family, and you're getting the picture. Now imagine that the house is well-peppered with pals of the actors, who guffaw every time their buddy tries to steal a scene. The whole mess becomes a sucking vortex with its own will to survive, and you find yourself laughing because you can't believe the people around you are finding this stuff funny.What's it about, you say? Well, it's about a sadistic blueblood named Sylvia (Kate Parker) who's hiding a secret that enables her to earn not only her late father's sympathy, but his fortune. She can't walk, you see, but refuses a wheelchair on the grounds that she doesn't want to be considered a cripple. Instead she has her male friends carry her around as if she were expensive luggage. She uses her inheritance to bully her bat-brained mother (Laurie Utterback) into becoming her maid, and her effeminate brother (Patrick Walrath) into a henchman for her twisted contrivances. There's a minister (Gerald B. Browning), whose New Hampshire dialect seems to come from watching Pepperidge Farm commercials, and a pair of young lovers, one a clairvoyant (Adria LaMorticella), the other a randy handyman (Daniel Wood) who possesses the aforementioned unveiled rump.Admittedly, Charles Ludlam's work is something of an acquired taste (Love's Tangled Web dates from 1981), rather like early John Waters films. New Yorker critic Brendan Gill said it well when he wrote, "This isn't farce. This isn't absurd. This is absolutely ridiculous." Ludlam, who died of AIDS complications in 1987, was no shrinking violet or stranger to people not getting or liking his work. Just the same, this play deserves better than director Ed Hawkins' approach, which has all the forethought of opening cans of Silly String onstage. Hamming it up for your buddies sure is fun at a party, and yes, it can be amusing to watch Seth Rogen, Steve Carell, or Will Ferrell turn it up to 11 in bloopers, too. But don't call it art.On the other hand, maybe Act 2 is terrific.

 
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