In the fable of the fox and the crow, first credited to the ancient Greek storyteller Aesop, you'll learn why you shouldn't speak with your mouth full of food. Or maybe why you should never sing on command. Or is the lesson that you shouldn't listen to flatterers? I dunno — I can't keep my morals straight anymore.
Whatever the lesson may be, Aesop's story begins with a crow sitting in a tree, stuffing her mouth full of cheese. Along comes a fox, hoping to score some grub for himself. He tells the crow that she's a pretty little thing. He wonders aloud whether her voice could possibly be pretty, too. The crow opens her beak to prove that yes, her voice is freakin' fantastic — and the cheese falls to the fox below.
So what's the moral here? "Everyone lies and you'd better get used to it," we're told at the beginning of Steve Yockey's Disassembly, a new comedy making its world premiere at Impact Theatre in Berkeley. Maybe that wasn't the lesson Aesop had in mind. But when did he ever write anything as mordantly funny or raucously entertaining as this?
Yockey opens his play with a reenactment of Aesop's fable. Then he shifts his scene to the present-day apartment inhabited by twins Evan (Nick Trengove) and Ellen (Kathryn Zdan). Enter Tessa (Dina Percia) and her consort, Stanley (Seth Thygesen), who discover that Evan has just been stabbed while jogging. Oddly enough, no one has called the police — and Evan's fiancée, Diane (Marissa Keltie), entertains some very dark suspicions about the truth behind his mishap.
Frankly, everyone is worthy of a little suspicion. Evan has dodged death several times, including a fall from a rooftop onto a picket fence. Tessa has mourned the deaths of three fiancés. (She describes this predicament, demurely, as "a surprising run of misfortune with men.") Ellen endures the unwanted attention of an obsessive ex-boyfriend (Tim Redmond), the kind of guy who is partial to endearments like "I love you more than I hate anything else." And Evan continues to catch the eye of Mirabelle (Andrea Snow), the nosy, sexually frustrated neighbor who lives down the hall with far too many cats.
Much of the writing is superb. Yockey manages to create pitch-black comedy without forcing it, and a few of the play's developments truly caught me by surprise. In fact, there's a moment involving an impromptu performance of contemporary gospel music — a moment at once strange and hilarious and unsettling — that had me leaning forward in rapt anticipation of what would happen next. That kind of thing doesn't happen very often in comedy. It hardly ever happens in drama, for that matter. It only happens when you're in the hands of an unusually talented writer who can play on your emotions even in the goofiest of scenarios.
Director Desdemona Chiang finds just the right pace for this densely packed show, and she orchestrates a few clever fight scenes on Impact's tiny stage (with inventive assistance from "blood technician" Tunuviel Luv). As is customary in an Impact production, all the actors commit lustily to their roles, with Snow a particular standout as the passive-aggressive neighbor. On a technical level, the only element I found distracting was Jax Steager's lighting design, which is so bright and direct that the actors sometimes resemble a garishly lit vaudeville troupe.
Strong as all this is, one strain left me somewhat uneasy. I won't belabor this point because I haven't seen Yockey's other work, but on the evidence of this play, I'd say he should examine more closely a creeping tendency toward misogyny. I'm not just talking about the lady with the apartment full of cats; I'm also referring to the show's heavy emphasis on shrieking, clawing women, all of whom seem to require a man to keep them in check.
The play is also far too short. It runs just over 60 minutes and ends abruptly at what feels like a major plot juncture rather than a finale. This is an unusual problem. In most cases, playwrights are so fond of their words that they can't choose which ones to cut. But here, Yockey leaves us — not to mention his characters — hanging at a moment rich with comic possibility.
At the end, Yockey reintroduces the fox and the crow. That's right: Instead of resolving the chaos onstage, instead of offering much of a climax, he throws us back into the realm of fable. Trouble is, his concluding moral seems to be a total non sequitur. The fox attempts to trick the crow once again, but the crow is wise now. She eats her cheese in silence. She doesn't acknowledge the fox. She endures no further humiliations. But this is a hollow victory; she may get what she wants, but only at the price of isolation and loneliness. Still, she insists that she's happy, alone in her tree, eating her cheese. This "moral" — I'm putting the word in quotation marks because it materializes out of nowhere, with very little connection to any of the material preceding it — concludes nothing. It simply serves as a stopping point, and in that sense it's less a period than a question mark.
The characters in Disassembly don't need Aesop to inform them that they're unhappy or that they've misbehaved. What they need is a finale that delivers on the considerable promise of their predicament. What they need, in other words, is a more complete play.