Puzzlemaster John Kuntz has concocted a real doozy with “Necessary Monsters,’’ an elaborate, seriocomic maze of a play now receiving its premiere at SpeakEasy Stage Company under the expert direction of David R. Gammons.
Alternately intriguing and exasperating, brilliant and self-indulgent, “Necessary Monsters’’ takes us on a journey into the darker regions of impulse and appetite while also exploring that most nonlinear of phenomena, memory.
Kuntz marries elements of Pirandello and Grand Guignol as he toys with our perceptions, not just blurring but erasing the lines between reality and fiction, past and present, actual connections and imagined ones. In its narrative complexity, ominously dislocating atmospherics, and array of characters who go through their strange motions behind a wire fence, Kuntz’s play brings to mind Peter Weiss’s experimental classic set in an insane asylum, “Marat/Sade.’’
Bolstered by a blue-chip ensemble that includes the protean playwright, “Necessary Monsters’’ switches among multiple characters who will eventually share a collective, calamitous fate. Kuntz riffs on movie genres — the slasher flick, film noir, psychological thriller — and on the moviemaking process itself. At certain points, actors are immobilized in freeze-frame style; at others, they speed up as though a fast-forward button has been activated.
Admirable though Kuntz’s innovations and ambitions are, his play would benefit from more clarity. Also, you have to wonder why this original-minded playwright built so much of “Necessary Monsters’’ around a serial killer who wears a hockey goalie’s mask, “Friday the 13th’’-style, and the ripple effects from his crimes. Yes, the effect is chilling, but this route to the psychological heart of darkness is much-traveled. What with “Dexter,’’ “True Detective,’’ “The Silence of the Lambs,’’ “American Psycho,’’ and countless others, the world of the serial slayer has been done to death, you should pardon the expression.
But however grim matters get in “Necessary Monsters,’’ you never have to wait long for Kuntz’s subversive wit to manifest itself. He plucks bits from the detritus of pop culture, such as a snippet of Paul Anka’s retrograde pop hit “(You’re) Having my Baby.’’ The playwright has fun with the conventions of film noir — including such chortle-inducing dialogue as “I never meant for this to happen. I never meant … to fall in love,’’ and “If we get caught, it’s the electric chair!’’ — while also tossing off Kuntzian observations about everyday life like “Somewhere between the kitchen and the living room is a Bermuda Triangle where your memory drowns.’’ The taping of a children’s TV show (rendered in grimly parodic style) goes seriously awry when a coffee-toting assistant interrupts a take and one of the actresses has a meltdown of Christian Bale proportions.
In addition to Kuntz, the uniformly strong cast includes Georgia Lyman, Thomas Derrah, Evelyn Howe, McCaela Donovan, Stacy Fischer, Michael Underhill, and Greg Maraio. Derrah, appearing for the first time in a play written by Kuntz, his real-life husband, doesn’t speak until an hour into the play. Unsurprisingly, he’s worth the wait. As a socialite straight out of Sondheim’s “The Ladies Who Lunch,’’ Derrah offers an indelible portrait of aggrieved hauteur, with melancholy lapping around the character’s edges.
Gammons’s imagination is a match for Kuntz’s; there’s a reason these two collaborate so often, most recently in SpeakEasy’s production of Samuel D. Hunter’s “The Whale,’’ starring Kuntz and Lyman. When we enter the Roberts Studio Theatre before the start of “Necessary Monsters,’’ the cast is already in motion; it’s as if we’ve stumbled into a dance recital where all the dancers have been hypnotized. The actors engage in rhythmic, repetitive motions that semaphore certain aspects of the play (and they continue these actions for several minutes after the play begins). They raise their hands above their heads, gaze upward, or walk forward slowly; they pantomime doing the breast stroke or smoking a cigarette; they sit and read a book. At one point, Kuntz skips madly about the stage, waving at the audience, childlike.
The audience sits on either side of the stage, which is enclosed by a tall wire fence. Cristina Todesco’s set design is remarkably detailed, even by her high standards. Nearly a dozen TV monitors constantly flash images — a young girl dancing in her bedroom, clouds scudding across the sky, a flower unfolding — while periodically transmitting the live onstage action. (Gammons took a similar multimedia approach in his production of Kuntz’s “The Salt Girl,’’ starring the playwright, at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre a few years ago). Yellow work lights of the sort used by auto mechanics are strewn about the stage.
At times, you’re likely to wish those lights could illuminate the more confusing parts of “Necessary Monsters.’’ But though you may be baffled, you’re unlikely to be bored.