Cocteau is probably best known for directing such films as Orpheus and Beauty and the Beast, but Les Parents Terribles, his play from 1938, anticipates the crazed-kinfolk comedies of writers like Christopher Durang. For instance, George (Brian Kimmel), the father, is a crackpot inventor who hangs around in his bathrobe, while Yvonne (Maia Knispel), the mother, is a diabetic semi-invalid with an unwholesome attachment to their son. Aunt "Leo" (Jessica Warren), an old maid once in love with George, fights a losing battle to keep the house from becoming completely chaotic.
The action begins on what one suspects is a usual day, as George tinkers with his new invention, an underwater submachine gun, while Yvonne gasps for sugar and rants about secret activities of 22-year-old son Michael (Allen Read). When Michael finally returns from being out all night, he announces that he's in love with a 25-year-old bookbinder named Madeleine (Heather Starkel). Read and Starkel give Michael and Madeleine an open-hearted innocence that proves no match for his family's mania. ("You're all as mad as a bag of snakes!" someone observes.)
Yvonne feels furious and spurned that her son could love anyone else but her, while George has his own special reason to be shocked: Unbeknownst to either father or son, he's been having an affair with Madeleine as well. George several times acknowledges that it's a predicament worthy of a farce -- "It's like something out of Moliere!" -- and perhaps because of that self-consciousness, Out of Hand offers an interpretation of the play that's not as jokey or comic as it could be.
Directed by Ariel de Man, Parents does boast three particular strengths: energy, energy and energy. The cast delivers their dialogue at a rapid clip, climbing up ladders or sprawling across the floor, with Knispel especially working to give Yvonne 180-degree mood swings. Out of Hand proves generally jazzed by the possibilities of the theatrical, and stages the show as a kind of "happening." The seating -- in the round, of course -- ranges from folding chairs to beanbags to cushions to love seats, and actors sometimes directly address or even toss clothes at members of the audience.
In the first act, Elizabeth Gaines' lighting is dim and gloomy, with Jimmy Hilburn's set suggesting the disordered dwelling of shut-ins who never throw anything away. The second act finds Madeleine's flat to be almost harshly lit, with pristine, all-white furnishings -- including a bathtub for a nude scene. Parents even includes the meta-theatrical touch of handing out flashlights at intermission: During act two, the lights go down entirely, requiring the audience to illuminate the actors.
But some of the actors' ages create a problem in casting. The ensemble seem to be about the same age, but the characters' generational differences are a key aspect of the material. George and Yvonne are arguably more childish than Michael and Madeleine, with Kimmel proving particularly boyish, but that doesn't really make up for the age discrepancy. Mostly the players capture important character traits -- Warren proves especially effective with Leo's determination -- but the roles also grapple with mid-life crises and middle-aged regrets that the youthful actors simply aren't seasoned enough to replicate.
The second half is significantly longer than the first, and the script's length ends up working against it. In such a small, hot space as 7 Stages' Back Stage, your patience for raving eccentricity wears out long before the play itself, even though the production offers a high-speed change of set and the flashlight gimmick for a second time.
You watch Les Parents Terribles with appreciation for Out of Hand's drive and enthusiasm. Those virtues can't always compensate for experience and resources, as the production shows, but you leave the theater more than willing to see what they'll go after next.
Les Parents Terribles (Indiscretions) plays through Sept. 16 at the Back Stage Theater of 7 Stages, 1105 Euclid Ave., at 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat. and 5 p.m. Sun. $12-$15. 404-522-6176. www.outofhandtheater.com.
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