The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds
ArtsWest, 938-0339. Through Feb 3.

OKAY, THE BASICS: Here we have the dysfunctional and highly irritating Hunsdorfer family. Matilda is the homely but bright youngest daughter, Ruth, her crazy teenage sister who suffers from mysterious convulsions, Beatrice, the carping, chain-smoking matriarch, and poor old Nanny, their "vegetable" tenant. Mad about molecules, Matilda enters the school science fair--an experiment on the effect of radiation on, you guessed it, man-in-the-moon marigolds--and wins first place. And that, in a nutshell, is the plot.

Everything technical about this production was good, even very good. With a conspicuous abundance of resources, they managed a marvelous set (kudos to set designer Susan Ross), clever light work (John Chenault), and perfectly chosen and executed sound and music (Joel Mundahl). But frankly, this play constitutes my least favorite type of theater experience: wordy, emotionally chaotic, and frustrating classical American theater. The script is stark, confusing, rambling: full of strange outbursts and disjointed comments. The actors are left with the almost impossible task of creating sympathetic characters from a bunch of carping, abrasive, irrational lunatics. Trying to uncover an acceptable internal motivation for the bizarre dialogue their characters are spouting leaves most actors (i.e., those who aren't theatrical savants) with one option: Make everyone crazy. So they do. And sitting for 90 minutes watching a bunch of nut cases make every possible bad decision to fuck up their lives leaves the audience member (i.e., me) feeling frustrated, claustrophobic, and annoyed.

But the actors can't be faulted. My favorite among the all-female cast was Virginia Vandelac, who spoke not a word but arguably created the most sympathetic and quietly engaging character as the mute, long-abused Nanny. But really, all of that time, heart, and energy would have been much better spent telling a story that actually went somewhere with characters you can actually care about and relate to. Otherwise, what's the point?