When you first hear about Constance Congdon’s best known play, Tales of the Lost Formicans, the premise seems quirky and promising: Suburbia Meets Outer Space. But this offbeat mix of sci-fi fantasy and modern American family angst, directed by Kristin Gehring at Circle Theatre, sounds better than it plays. The actual production, I’m afraid, is an uneven, low-energy event. Since the lines between reality and fantasy get pretty blurry, it’s also increasingly disorienting. Material like this cries for hyper, no-holds-barred pacing. This dark comedy is frankly not all that funny.
It seems a gaggle of space alien anthropologists is objectively analyzing the human race-users of Formica whom they call “Formicans.” These inquisitive outer space observers, however, are often puzzled as they try to decipher earth culture. They scrutinize a kitchen chair with chrome legs, for instance, but cannot figure out the “significance of the hole in the backrest.” They speculate perhaps it’s “a breathing hole for the spirit of the setter, or even the ever-present eye of God.”
These space aliens get the best comic lines as they report their findings. They show up periodically in lab coats and dark glasses to make their random observations, but none of them really contributes significantly to the plot. They report, for instance, that humans “wash their clothes in public places.” Amusing, perhaps. Sidesplitting wit, I think not.
There is seldom the emotional intensity such heavy domestic issues as aging, illness, and divorce require. Almost all the characters seem like zombies, not just the extraterrestrials. I kept thinking of the Cone Heads from the early days of Saturday Night Live. But Beldar, Prynaat, and Connie Cone Head from the planet Remulak always made observations about earthly lifestyles that were twisted but insightful.
The structure is disjointed. We are constantly shifting back and forth between the aliens and the human family. But as the play meanders, no one ever really connects with anyone else. I grew tired trying to care about these people.
The central, three-generation family is literally falling apart at the seams. Of course, impending chaos and disruptive change confront all families on an on-going basis. But since none of these folks seems to comprehend what’s happening in his or her own lives, the aliens are on hand to observe, comment, and interpret-though their remarks are seldom perceptive or uproarious.
Karin McKie is Cathy, a middle-aged, divorced mom who moves back home to live in suburban Colorado with her parents, dragging her rebellious, profane teenage son (Mark Ginski) along with her. There she encounters her self-destructive childhood girlfriend Judy (Lynn Nosek) as well as a man obsessed with conspiracy theories (Raymond Shoemaker). It seems like their once pristine subdivision is now on the skids. Gal pal Judy, matter-of-factly reporting on every home on the block like she’s a realtor, mentions a recent suicide who’d stuck a pistol in his mouth: “He lay there in his blood all afternoon. Say goodbye to the wall-to-wall carpeting.”
Cathy helps her overbearing mother (Mary Redmon) care for her confused and ever more disoriented father (Larry Wiley). Congdon supposedly wrote the play for her father who had died of complications of Alzheimer’s disease.
The aliens are truly puzzled by this dysfunctional family as it experiences increasing crisis-the old man’s debilitating illness, the collapsed marriage, and the angry youth who runs away. These space observers pull a neat trick where they are able to actually rewind and rearrange scenes to fit their own detached spin on what’s happening. It never fully makes sense but it’s so slickly staged, with the actors speaking “playback” gibberish, that it’s fun to witness.
At times characters jump from being inside a scene to standing outside it, addressing the audience. And why are they doing this? Because they can. Who knows why.
Though the time frame is never established, much of the material feels dated and tired. Alzheimer’s disease is never referred to by name. Perhaps in the ’80s when this play was written, that precise label was not yet in common usage. There’s even an endless dope-smoking scene where Nosek and McKie share a joint as they commiserate about their poor track records with men.
We all constantly juggle multiple problems, but the plot of a play needs focus. Here we are confronted with everything from the challenges of raising a difficult teenager while starting over after a divorce to the nightmare of caring for ailing parents. The aliens could provide a zany, hellzapoppin’ spin on all this gloom, but they don’t. It’s like a bad trip in the middle of a nightmare. Or perhaps if the human family’s sad situations were played over-the-top, Carol Burnett fashion, we’d enjoy some guilty laughs. As it is, each grim development seems inert and extraneous.
I hope someone eventually lets me in on how and why one of the characters ends up trysting in a motel with one of the aliens. I must have been having my own out-of-body experience when that little plot twist was set up because it went right over my head.
Formicans contains one intermission, mature language, and sexual situations. Andy Baldeschwiler is one of the aliens. Chelsea Lynn is stage manager.
Peter J. Storms’ sound design is strikingly real and crisp. But this show is performed in a virtual black hole. Bob Knuth’s dark set-on top of all the dark situations and dark plot-makes you feel like you’re trapped for a couple hours in the coal mine at the bottom of the Museum of Science and Industry.
Tales of the Lost Formicans is not a strong play from the get-go, and this production fails to bring it to life.