Pterodactyls | St. Louis Actor’s Studio

STLASPtero sqPlaywright Nicky Silver must have had the most disastrous childhood in the history of children or else he has a terrifically vivid imagination.



A young man whose promiscuity has led him to develop A.I.D.S. His sister who is so repressed, she doesn’t even remember her brother exists, and so obsessed with her health that she claims that her skin doesn’t fit. An alcoholic wife and mother whose inappropriate behavior with her son may have set him on his destructive path. A father who has been buried in work for 30 years, has affairs, doesn’t listen to anyone, and has clearly been intimate with his daughter. Meet the Duncans, the worst family ever to be created. The nod their last name makes to Macbeth only reinforces that the Scottish couple really do get along pretty well when you think about it, and they only kill themselves and dinner guests, not the children. They are currently residing at the Gaslight Theatre in Pterodactyls, a comedy.

Whit Reichert is the patriarch, Arthur, who takes his go-to stage persona as a well-meaning bumbler and makes it creepy. He’s very good. So is James Slover, introduced as daughter, Emma’s (Betsy Bowman) boyfriend/fiancé, who was an orphan raised by nuns, but then of course, where there are nuns there are also priests, so feel free to go to the most unsavory place possible to access his childhood experiences. He is Tommy McKorkle, a sweet young bisexual rapist who acts as the Duncan family maid, black dress and all, when theirs quits. He quite likes his outfit and takes his work seriously. He’s more upset than the woman of the house, Grace (Penny Kols) when Arthur misses dinner. Nathan Bush as the afflicted Todd has a diffident air, insists he feels fine, though this is the 1980s, and he’s doomed, and spends his time reconstructing a set of dinosaur bones he finds in the backyard. Though the play is titled Pterodactyls, the bones are Tyrannosaurus Rex, the largest and meanest dino of them all.

Milt Zoth directs this bunch at a surprisingly leisurely pace and except Reichert, they are very loud. There are some reasons for that, such as Grace’s being at full volume because she’s an alcoholic and drinks to block her psychic pain, and one of the stages she goes through before passing out appears to be logorrhea. Emma is loud because she’s in pain and wants everyone to know it. Todd gets loud because his father insists on calling him “Buzz,” his childhood nickname and because he seems to have two actual moods: lassitude and fury. Tommy shouts back at Todd when they argue about sex. Suffice to say, almost all the cast get plenty of opportunities to use their actor voices.

Each character has several chances to step forward and address the audience to discuss and/or try to explain their actions or a plot point. This does help us untangle the skein of aberrant behavior that makes up the Duncans’ life, but it can be distracting too. The show has a simple plot at bottom: Emma and Tommy happily discuss their relationship, and he proposes. Todd comes in the door and Emma hasn’t a clue who he is. When their mother comes in and jumps in his arms, it is confirmed that he is Emma’s brother who hasn’t been home in five years. Dad returns from the office and is also thrilled to see “Buzz” (or Buzz Boy or Buzzie, take your pick). There is a lot of drinking and talking and wedding planning and crises surrounding missing hors d’oeuvres, the wrong color of purple on the party tent, an imbalance of guests, and so on. Todd gives his sister a pistol as a wedding present, and turns away to not-so-subtly load it. Paging Mr. Chekhov.

Playwright Nicky Silver must have had the most disastrous childhood in the history of children or else he has a terrifically vivid imagination. Earlier this year, another company put on his play The Lyons, which is very similar to this play — hapless father (dying), overbearing mother in extreme denial though she pretends not to be, neurotic daughter, and gay son. The fifth in that company is a real estate agent. The number of coincidences is unusual, but there is one major difference: The Lyons is funny. Pterodactyls is not; in fact, it pretends to importance by the symbol of the dinosaurs who were destroyed by their own stupidity in failing to adapt to their environment, which they instead consumed. The program gives us an  observation on Silver in a Washington Post quote that explains a lot: “Silver is a modern American absurdist in the tradition of John Guare of Harry Kondoleon, but more of a lowbrow. His go-for-the laugh instincts are as naked as any sitcom writer’s.” The key words here are “lowbrow” and “sitcom.” There is nothing that is in such bad taste that Silver doesn’t use it for laughs, and there is certainly a situation comedy’s timing in the dialogue—set up, set up, joke. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The technical aspects of the show are fine. The Duncan’s living room is comfortable, well-lighted, and appointed. A large globe is placed downstage center, and it is by that that Todd does a kind of prologue to the story where he has forgotten his notes and riffs on dinosaurs and the origin or people and Jesus and what not. The globe is then moved aside and revealed to be, of course, a bar. The costumes help us identify the era and the characters, e.g., Emma’s childishness demonstrated in her pastel clothing and a big white bow in her hair and Grace’s gracelessness in her bright get-ups and huge hair. Tommy really is an ongoing joke in Florence the maid’s cast-off dresses, apron, and heels. Arthur looks like Ward Cleaver without the class. Todd never changes clothes, which could mean he’s imaginary or something, but I don’t really think so. Credit goes to Teresa Doggett (costumes), Wendy Renee Greenwood (props), and Patrick Huber (scenic and lighting design). Robin Weatherall also deserves a nod for his interesting and appropriate musical choices.

If a theatre company is going to produce Pterodactyls, then St. Louis Actor’s Studio has done as well with it as one could expect with a few exceptions, but the big question to me is why anyone wanted to do it at all. | Andrea Braun

Pterodactyls runs through November 24, 2013 at St. Louis Actor’s Studio. For further information you may contact

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