Theater: It Hurts To Laugh in “Trevor”

Trevor featuring Steven Boyer, Colleen Werthmann, and Shawn Randall Photo credit Hunter Canning

Photo/Hunter Canning

Poor Trevor: he can’t even get a job at Dunkin’ Donuts, so it’s no wonder that he enters with a bit of a waddle to his step, a bit of a hunch and droop, car keys awkwardly falling from his hands. Anxiety and frustration like his are just a few steps behind crippling depression, so you can forgive him for not being more apologetic about crashing Sandra’s car. Oh, yeah, and perhaps it has something to do with the fact that he’s a maturing 200-pound chimpanzee filled with the confusion of an erstwhile show-business career that asked him to act (and treated him) like a human being. Trevor begins as a comedy, one step away from Seth MacFarlane’s shock territory as Trevor (Steven Boyer) relates animal wisdom in human terms, noting that when on camera, one must “not poop, no matter how intense things get,” explaining that he’s “comfortable with nudity,” and that a tiger is stupid because it can’t smoke a cigarette on cue, what with “it’s stupid fucking paws.” Buoyed by Boyer’s bravura performance (talk about throwing oneself into a role: watch him leap atop furniture), the show dips into melodrama, for despite the fact that Trevor and his “mother,” Sandra (a magnificent Colleen Werthmann) are family, sharing meals together, they have no real way to communicate: Trevor cannot understand humans, they can’t understand him, even if they’re mourning the same thing. Ultimately, Trevor, which is loosely based on the true story of another chimpanzee, Travis, is a tragic morality play, with the forces of justice — a meek police officer, Jim, (Andy Nogasky) and an outsider from Animal Control, Jerry (Shawn Randall) — brought to bear on Trevor by a perhaps justly nervous new neighbor, Ashley (Amy Staats). The “man,” having been treated as such, is adrift:

[I can’t get work] because I don’t have an easily definable look; I mean I don’t fall into a type like some chimpanzees. I’m not always silly and I’m not always brooding, I have a full palette of emotions. You’d think people would be looking for someone with that kind of depth, of complexity, but nooo, not on television.

Rightly so, then, playwright Nick Jones has harbored this story in a theater, trusting that Boyer’s transformative powers will allow it to easily sail through the shifting tones just as Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s smooth-so-as-to-be-startling direction will anchor the ever-changing stakes of the show. The show, like the monkey, refuses to be what you expect: for instance, it features seductive dream sequences between Trevor and his former “co-star” Morgan Fairchild (Geneva Carr) and an amiable (and imaginary) rivalry between Trevor and a classier, white tuxedo-wearing simian named Oliver (Nathaniel Kent, another physical comedy powerhouse). Sandra’s actions are exaggerated for both dramatic and comic effect, depending on the sort of weapon you place in her hands. Trevor isn’t a comedy about a foul-mouthed monkey, it’s a drama about a foul-mouthed human trapped in the body of a chimpanzee. Ashley criticizes Sandra and Jim for humoring Trevor, for trying to understand him in human terms, and she’s absolutely right. But thanks to the nuances in Jones’s (surprisingly nuanced considering that feces is thrown) script, she’s also the villain for not trying to understand Trevor. She’s a sympathetic character, sure, but Trevor’s the one you’ll be empathizing with.

Smart design choices also set Trevor apart from other comedies with talking animals (like Family Guy or Wilfred): Elizabeth Barrett Groth dresses Trevor as if he’s a human in slightly over-sized overalls (just one more humanizing feature), Andrew Boyce’s set draws a harsh distinction between the house’s white carpet and bouncy sofa cushions and the black, imposing kennel/prison that occupies all of stage left, and Mike Inwood’s flashy lighting cues help us to understand what Trevor must feel to be caught in Hollywood brights. This, along with Boyer’s deeply expressive, deeply needy performance, makes us forget, time and again, that Trevor is actually a chimpanzee at all; in fact, one of the most potent moments is when Trevor at last comes to recognize himself — pitiful, ridiculed, used — on an old DVD:

TREVOR
Who is that? Who is that?

SANDRA
That’s right. That’s you, sweetheart. That’s Trevor.

TREVOR
Trevor? But I’m so…do I really…?
(looking at himself)

JERRY
It’s incredible, the way he recognizes himself.

TREVOR
Is that really what I look like?

SANDRA
He’s very smart.

Smart, then, is the safest way to describe Trevor, both the chimpanzee and the play. After all, calling something that makes you cry almost as much as you laugh “just” a comedy is about as accurate as calling an actor who wears a bunch of funny hats and sunglasses in front of a live audience “just” a chimpanzee.

Press ticket; general admission.

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