Maria-Luiza Müller’s delightfully devious one-act, On How to Be a Monster, which just finished a three-performance run earlier this week at The Tank on 36th Street, features a distinctive cast: a smooth-talking, sequin-clad, emcee (Adam Fisher). A menacing (when he isn’t dancing) growly, gorilla-like creature (also Fisher). And four mostly interchangeable, bland, upscale couples, drinking wine and trading jibes and platitudes at the dinner table.
That action happens upstage. Downstage, the couples compete in an unabashedly cheery game show for the Best Couple award—categories include Costumes and Special Skills or Sad Story—while also coping with the sudden, mysterious disappearance of Tara (Isabella Uzcátegui), who was present for Scene 3 but fails to come out for Scene 4. Tara’s partner, Don (Martin Drop), is now the sole male-identifying character on stage without a partner; yet he is far from alone: he shares a rhyming name with John, Ron, and Sean. Tara’s compatriots also rhyme: Clara, Lara and Sarah.
But the synonymous naming quality of the people on stage is not their most compelling aspect. If anything, their names serve as markers or indicators of a far more troubling dearth of singularity or individuality among Müller’s characters. It is as though a virus inflicting pod-people personalities has been unloosed upon them, to which no one, save the monster, seems immune. If Müller’s short, spiky play unfolds with an ironic, semi-absurdist detachment from reality, it is also, in very real ways, a deeply felt coming-of-age story. The playwright’s characters are all young—a few years maybe post-adolescent—and still desperately seeking defining and definitive role models. Their imprinting is far from finished, and they cling to each other while searching for ways to be. They have learned that saving lives is good and taking them is bad. But the small, internal aspects of being—the scrawl that forms the everyday, crucial liner notes of existence—has thus far eluded them. Müller approaches this situation with a playful sense of humor, but doesn’t shrink from its troubling pain point either:
Amazing! Now for the questions section. Lara, what is Tina’s favorite food?
D-E-L-I-C-I-O-U-S! Who else loves pasta?
The people cheering sound can be heard.
Ron, what are your thoughts on planned parenthood?
That people should donate more money to it.
You are so right, Ron! So, so right, Ron!
Have you prepared a special skill or a sad story?
The production, directed with a straightforward, accessible economy by Federica Borlenghi, never lingers to allow us to catch our breath and figure out what all the exuberant turmoil on stage means or represents. Yet our attention never drifts. We’re in the moments. The characters display a perfectly pitched, uniform complacency, which keeps us disconcertingly on-edge. Which is as it should be: Borlenghi wants us to watch, respond instinctively, and then figure it all out later. This is a wise artistic choice, as contending with Müller’s themes and philosophical conundrums turns out to be one of the chief and most enjoyable charms of the play itself.
On How to Be a Monster. By Maria-Luiza Müller. Directed by Federica Borlenghi. Presented February 22nd, 24th, and 25th, 2020, by Et Alia Theater in association with The Tank (312 W. 36th St.). With Cristiano Benefanti (Sean), John Blair (Ron), Martin Drop (Don), Adam Fisher (Monster/Host), Ana Moioli (Lara), Maria-Luiza Müller (Clara), Dylan Soal (John), Giorgia Valenti (Sarah), Isabella Uzcátegui (Tara). Kendall Dupre (Stage Manager), Austin Pogrob (Sound Designer), Katherine Teed-Arthur (Lighting Designer).
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