Chris Lee's Eat the Enemy is a long way from appetizing. Violent, mean-spirited and as cynical as it gets, this sitcom-style British play -- it wants to be a telling look at contemporary culture and sex -- is in desperate need of a message. Instead of profundity or depth or real humor, this nasty little script delivers one hateful image after another, images that are topped off in the end with a bombastic screed against the violence of love in the modern age.
The Theater LaB play embraces the narcissistic tendencies of the last four decades of Western culture and squeezes misery from every character, like some ancient vise of verbal torture.
In 1969 Claire (Marie Hennebery) and husband Lloyd (Jerry Miller) are preparing a delicious pasta dinner for their friend Peter (Joel Sandel). This lovely couple is in dire need of counseling. Beautiful and utterly bored, Claire enjoys verbally bashing her geeky mate into mental mush. She's middle-class and ignorant, and her heart's no bigger than a thumbnail. She enjoys making outrageous proclamations such as England needs a "vicious, malevolent act of God."
Lesson No. 1 of the night: Be careful what you wish for.
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Peter arrives with all the bounty of an Old Testament God. He's mean, loud and obnoxious as he insults Lloyd and coos over Claire. Self-centered Claire enjoys the attention while Lloyd whines about having to sit through an "evening of Lloyd-baiting."
Of course Lloyd is as capable as anyone of being mean. "It's all coming back to me," he sulks.
"What is?" asks Peter.
"How unbearable you are," snorts Lloyd.
Rudeness rules the night.
It's not that the actors don't give this hateful haranguing all their heart, it's just that there's no heart in this script. And Ed Muth's oftentimes strange staging doesn't help. At one point the fancy-pants Lloyd and tight-skirted Claire sit down on their kitchen floor for no fathomable reason. And Peter hops up on the chopping block, lies on his belly and delivers a few lines from that peculiar position. There is no obvious logic to this distracting staging, and any covert message that might be implied by people breaking the standard decorum of where to sit and where to stand is lost in the awkwardness and the obvious discomfort of the actors made to perform these weird moves.
Turns out that Lloyd "shagged" Peter's late wife, Emma, and Peter is boiling mad about it. He has actually come for revenge. Deep into the night Peter makes ill use of black stockings, a garter belt, Lloyd and the chopping block.
Scene two has the three characters at the same age, only fast-forwarded to 1979, the end of the Me Generation. Claire and Lloyd make pasta again, a dish which has become increasingly sophisticated with time. Peter waxes on about the ridiculous and endless varieties of pasta which include "shell-shaped, worm-shaped and buttock-shaped" noodles. More clever and much more cruel, the outsider takes his revenge on the married couple in unspeakable ways, laughing the entire time.
A world of "dangerous sadists" is revealed in the next setting, in 1989. Claire and Lloyd are now leather-wearing Euro-trash who enjoy having sex in front of Peter just to humiliate him. Peter has become a bespectacled sad sack, while Lloyd has metastasized into a cancerous rot, totting a motto that goes something like "If it moves shag it. If it doesn't move, then kick it then shag it." It's impossible to understand how these people ended up together. Their bilious hatred toward each other spills across the stage. Poor Peter gets the worst comeuppance. Drugged, gagged and tied, he is unmanned by his hosts in the most grotesque fashion. As wicked as anything by Quentin Tarantino but not nearly as visually arresting, this play becomes nothing more than one long act of violence.
Pointless violence appears to be exactly Lee's point, as we learn in scene four.
In 1999 the three characters are gay. Peter and Lloyd make pasta for Claire, who's devastated by the loss of her girlfriend Emma. Apparently women don't get nearly so violent as men about their broken hearts. Claire is reduced to a long and sometimes very effective monologue about our violent world and the impact it has had on our ability to love one another.
Hennebery handles this emotional lecture about the violence of art, information and love with a dark and lovely passion. And it is a relief to discover the seemingly gratuitous scenes of violence have some sort of a point. The only problem is it comes about two hours too late.
Eat the Enemy runs through September 18 at Theater LaB Houston, 1706 Alamo, (713)868-7516. $18-$20.
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