Catalyst Repertory's 'Popular Monsters' scratches the dark underbelly of popular culture

The tawdry dreams of Hollywood can at least be admired for influencing the culture top to bottom.
'Popular monster: A veteran horror-film star in a heyday role.
Some illusions stay tribal; others are pervasive. As a Tinseltown striver, if your niche is in the basement rather than the penthouse or an oceanside estate in Santa Monica, you still know the rules by which the game is played. The fact that it's the same game at all strata doesn't make it any easier.

The setting of "Popular Monsters," a one-act drama by Lou Harry, is the cluttered office of a marginal horror-film magazine of the same title. It looks both lived in and worked in, with neither characteristic dominating more than simply the hang-out function that takes over for the play's four characters. The set, in this Catalyst Repertory production at the Irvington Lodge, is unfortunately lit in a way no actual room ever was, with floor spots throwing large overlapping shadows high on the wall.

On the other hand, there's a surrealist vibe at work here. Harry brings his encyclopedic knowledge of film and TV and a knack for skewering careerism even as he showers pity upon those caught up in it. The dialogue is witty and observant, but the pathos in the lives of a has-been workaday actor, the cynical publisher-to-be of "Popular Monsters," a nervous reporter for the magazine and obsessive fan of the genre, and his concupiscent sort-of girlfriend and spicy antagonist comes to the fore. There are frequent references to role-playing in the dialogue. This goes beyond the Shakespearean all-the-world's-a-stage set piece. It's more like the pretty nurse selling poppies from a tray in the Beatles' "Penny Lane," who "though she feels as if she's in a play, she is anyway."

Revelations about the characters are skillfully placed. Two separate theatrical touches were properly arresting and well-timed: when the graying star pounds on the door he has exited moments before and when the drunk magazine honcho emerges zombie-like from the bathroom. The audience becomes uncomfortably put in the position of Greg, the fan-reporter, who is eventually so bewildered by what he's learning that he doubts whether the table he puts his hand down on is really a table. Surrealism a la Magritte is a close relative to the fantasies that Hollywood has created with technological help for more than a century. It is aptly suggested as "Popular Monsters" writhes toward its conclusion.

In the first scene, embarrassed to the point of ineptness, Greg is interviewing Efrem Knight, a horror-film star scraping by after his heyday. As played by Tom Weingartner, Greg comes across as the stammering nebbish he turns out to be throughout. Under Zachariah Stonerock's direction, the trait may have been overdone. Yet Weingartner's delivery was always intelligible, given the near-inarticulateness of his character. If only Jamie McNulty as Knight had been heard as distinctly. I liked the world-weariness he projected and the defensiveness we eventually understand the reason for. But, despite displaying the acerbic wit of a bargain-basement Lady Bracknell, he often sounded like a man talking to himself.

The same near-inaudibility overtook Elsa, the reluctant scion of the "Popular Monsters" business in the wake of the impending death of the man she calls father. Stunning in the earlier scenes, whether bossy or drunk, Miranda Nehrig sounded depleted in Elsa's long, climactic speech near the end. True, the character is disburdening herself of some soul-searing stuff. But I wondered where the self-possession we'd seen earlier, however undercut by desperation, had disappeared to.

Alexandria Miles carried a lot of the repartee responsibility with panache. She could always be heard; she put across Shawna's decisiveness and perspicacity consistently, though the character is as needy in her own way as the other three. Yet her performance caused me to wonder if the show's pacing was designed to be so relentless. No beats or pauses in the script? Maybe not.

But I've always thought that when stage characters fire off zingers or make snappy comebacks, you should get some sense that they're fast thinkers and not merely articulate automatons. It's OK that the literacy level of the dialogue is lofty: it's remarkable, though not implausible, that when Elsa nails Knight with the information that he will never play King Lear, she uses the fivefold "never" of the mad king near the end of Shakespeare's play. Countless other allusions to TV shows and movies were lost on me, but at least I felt I was being invited into an authentic milieu — intense and believable, even though steeped in the Hollywood phantasmagoria.


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