By Patrick Hurley
The lies we tell ourselves in order to justify our own actions and behaviors is fertile ground for a writer. And Nick Jones’ new play Trevor, presented by Circle X Theatre Co., and playing now April 19, explores this idea to brutally funny effect.And it doesn’t stop at denial, the play explores self-aggrandizement, delusions of grandeur, and perhaps most importantly, love. None of this sounds very novel, and in fact, many plays delve into the same topics. What makes Trevor unique is that the title character is a chimpanzee.
Meet Trevor (Jimmi Simpson), a full-grown chimpanzee, living in the suburbs with his owner Sandra (Laurie Metcalf). Apparently Trevor came to live with Sandra when her now deceased husband purchased him out of a van in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Oh yeah, this is based on a true story. And so the major dramatic question of the piece: Can a full-grown chimp maintain suburban life? It’s not as easy as it sounds. Obstacles appear in the form of a disgruntled neighbor (Mary Elizabeth Ellis), who fears for the safety of her new born baby living right next door to such a large animal, so much so that she calls animal control. Jerry (Malcolm Barrett), from animal control, comes to inspect Sandra’s home and to make sure that Trevor doesn’t pose an immediate threat to anyone. What actually sets this play apart are not the obstacles that Sandra faces in order to continue the life she’s built with Trevor, which seems like it probably should be enough, but it’s the fact that the play is seen not through Sandra’s eyes, but through Trevor’s.
Dexterously characterized by the very talented Jimmi Simpson, Trevor becomes a personified microcosm of self-diluted, fame-hungry America. Driven by the need to perform, Trevor is convinced that he will someday be a star. Having worked for a day on a failed TV pilot with Morgan Fairchild (Brenda Strong), he has tasted stardom and he wants more. And so the combination of Sandra’s struggle to keep Trevor in her house, and Trevor’s belief in his own greatness and star power, makes this a constant back-and-forth comedy that never relents.
Playwright Nick Jones has done something wonderful here. He has taken the very relatable notions of the American dream, and all that entails, and has completely flipped them upside down. For example, the appearance of Oliver (Bob Clendenin), a famous chimp that Trevor aspires to be, and who appears in fantasy sequences all clad in white, reminiscent of Ben in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. And much like Ben, he is there to entice Trevor, to show him the way his life could be. The glittering allure of what could be. He is the American dream. Perhaps the playwright is suggesting that the American dream is really only for those still gullible enough to believe it even exists. This is sort of a deconstruction of Miller’s America, a post-modern view of a new kind of dream. A dream of reality television and notoriety. Mr. Jones doesn’t just poke fun, he also adds a real human touch through Sandra’s character arc. She is a lonely widow who clings to the companionship and love she has with Trevor as a means of holding her life together. A balancing act that is a joy to watch Laurie Metcalf maneuver.
The entire cast does a great job with the heightened material. But this play really belongs to Ms. Metcalf and Mr. Simpson. As Trevor, Jessi Simpson is sensational. His physicality is spot on, never over-done. His deadpan humor also deftly humanizes Trevor while still somehow keeping him innocently chimp-like. It just seems obvious, after seeing this play, that a chimp would have a dry sense of humor. As Sandra, Laurie Metcalf is flat out great. As a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, her inability to control her life, yet her desperate need for total control allows the actress to create a beautifully nuanced performance. And together, these two actors are a dynamic pair.
Director Stella Powell-Jones clearly knows what she’s doing. And not just with the humor. There is a great deal at stake in this play, and it moves at breakneck speed with such clarity that there are actually moments where the danger feels very real. And everything seems to move from moment to moment, whether dangerous or hilarious, without the hindrance of feeling “staged”. It takes a really gifted director to make a play like this feel natural. She is also aided by a wonderfully realistic set, designed by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz.
In the end, this play, a highly satirized slice of Americana, is a brutally funny, strangely thought-provoking, and always entertaining evening of theater that should not be missed.
By Nick Jones
Directed by Stella Powell-Jones
Atwater Village Theatre
3269 Casitas Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90039
March 14-April 19