By Wendy Rosenfield
FOR THE INQUIRER
So here’s a real surprise: On the third floor of Plays and Players Theatre, there’s a world premiere by an under-the-radar local playwright -- Joy Cutler -- filled with amateur actors, directed by a relative newcomer. All outward signs indicate a hot mess; instead, it’s a blast.
Cutler’s oddball black comedy, Pardon My Invasion, features an AWOL Iraq war soldier hiding, Exorcist-style, inside the body of Penny, a 13-year-old American girl whose single mother Rita (Jennifer Summerfield) writes pulpy detective novels for a living. And that synopsis only covers the first few scenes.
Last season, director Cara Blouin created Dan Rottenberg Is Thinking About R@ping You, a sharp comedic, feminist response to the Broad Street Review editor’s article blaming CBS News reporter Lara Logan for her own sexual assault. Blouin’s the right woman for this job too, blowing up Cutler’s surreal take on sexual politics into Roy Lichtenstein territory with big, bright cartoons whose primary-colored confidence threatens to either saturate the mere mortals around them or smother them.
The Army, particularly tough-as-nails moustachioed Sarge (Joe O’Brien, who literally somersaults onto the stage and maintains that momentum throughout), teaches men to kill or be killed; Rita’s novels show women, particularly her main moll Honey Babe (an outrageously busty, lusty Angela Smith), as red-dressed, red-lipsticked carnal dynamos.
Meanwhile, Rita and Penny -- along with that body snatcher, Pvt. Mack Jack (Emily Gibson, both vulnerable and hilarious in each role) -- exist much further down the charisma spectrum, sorting through their own personal trials the way regular people often do: clumsily, with poor judgment and mostly good intentions.
Third Amendment issues aside, Jack’s unlawful occupation of Penny takes Cutler’s whacked-out fantasy in continually unpredictable directions. Like the bastard child of Charles Busch and Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, she mixes camp and crisis with gender identity and contemporary anxieties, and emerges with a work eclectic enough to keep it moving onstage, but rooted firmly enough in its humanity that the wheels are still turning afterward. Even the play’s many -- very funny -- dirty jokes have a double edge.
With Cutler’s pen, Blouin’s eye, the all-out cast of pros (amateur or not) and Lance Kniskern, whose red-walled, askew-angled set prepares us for Cutler’s off-kilter tone while hiding a few secrets of its own, this production runs like a well-oiled military machine. In a fall season loaded with heavy themes and full-frontal realism, Plays and Players’ left-field entry is a welcome respite, and a sneaky contender.
Through Nov. 19 at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Place. Tickets: $20 to $25. Information: 800-595-4TIX or www.PlaysandPlayers.org