This is a day of startling declarations for Philadelphia's upscale Duncan family. First, daughter Emma (Betsy Bowman) blurts out that she's getting married. Alas, the object of her affection is not a fellow blue blood. Emma's mother (Penney Kols) — a contemporary stand-in for the stuffy Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest — knows instantly that Tommy (James Slover), an orphan who was raised by acrobats and nuns, is as unsuited to the Duncans' patrician life style as was Earnest's Jack Worthing unqualified to wed Cecily.
Before the shock of Emma's impending nuptial has time to wear off, her prodigal brother Todd (Nathan Bush) unexpectedly returns home to announce, "I have AIDS." A few minutes later Bro softens the blow with the comforting assurance, "I'm healthy. I'm strong. I'm not dying." That said, Todd commandeers a portion of the living room in order to assemble the dinosaur bones he has discovered in the back yard.
When Nicky Silver's absurdist black comedy Pterodactyls debuted off-Broadway in October 1993, critics hailed the 23-year-old playwright as a fresh new voice. Comparisons were made — no, not to Oscar Wilde — but to sharper-edged dramatists like Edward Albee, John Guare and Joe Orton. But the current production at St. Louis Actors' Studio suggests that those 1990s reviewers were too hasty in their rush to judgment. There is no voice here; rather, we see a playwright floundering in his attempt to find something original to say. While watching Pterodactyls (so named for its comparison of the demise of the irrelevant Duncan family to the extinction of dinosaurs 150 million years ago), the ghosts of earlier plays (Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth also comes to mind) hover over the stage so vividly as to outshine the one we're watching.
Silver has described the play as being about "systems of denial and the price they carry in the world today." If you've been looking for a mordant fable about denial systems, Pterodactyls might be right up your alley. Silver also tells us that his saga is set in the rarefied world of Philip Barry, who penned The Philadelphia Story, another comedy set on Philly's highfaluting Main Line. But if, location aside, you can find any helpful comparisons between The Philadelphia Story and Pterodactyls, you are blessed with sharper eyes than mine.
Perhaps the real problem here is that this production — which has been directed without nuance or shading by Milton Zoth — does not come close to unearthing the script's many intricacies. A play that must turn on a dime from nimble amusement to chilling confusion here has the harsh bluntness of a croquet mallet smashing into a wooden ball. When even Whit Reichert — one of our town's most gifted actors — seems to be out at sea (as he mostly is in his portrayal of the loutish father) something is alarmingly amiss. This production's only original contribution is to replace a wall map of the world (as described in the script) with a large circular globe that later is revealed as a portable bar. But this charming detail can hardly be credited to direction.
Silver certainly deserves kudos for persistence. In the two decades since Pterodactyls, he has written numerous plays. Eleven years ago City Players of St. Louis staged a frantically wicked version (directed by Christopher Limber) of Silver's The Food Chain. Three months ago director Wayne Salomon excavated brilliant humor from Silver's lacerating 2011 comedy The Lyons at Max & Louie Productions. In contrast to those two scripts, the earlier Pterodactyls now feels self-conscious and labored. As an example of a playwright during gestation, Pterodactyls has a certain contextual value. But if you just want to see someone build a dinosaur, you're assured of a lot more laughs by watching Philadelphia Story costars Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby.