Back in the 1930s, sociologist William Sheldon became famous for taking pictures of nude college students. Sanctioned by the universities, the photos, made in the name of "science," were used to classify and create "somatotypes" of the human race. Sheldon snapped three pictures of each naked student (side, front and back) and decided whether the young man or woman was primarily an "endoderm" (a fat and happy social butterfly), a "mesoderm" (a buff and beautiful go-getter) or an "extoderm" (a skinny, shy weakling). Sheldon's theories have since been utterly trashed, and the disgraced scientist died a lonely old man in 1977.
But at The Little Room Downstairs, Sheldon's tale of the grotesque is very much alive in Richard Willett's Triptych, a bizarre and sometimes fascinating script that might as well be named Cryptic for all the sense it makes.
At the center of Triptych are Carey (Christopher Patton) and Bernard (Jonathan McVay), a not-so-happy couple who part ways in the first scene and spend the rest of the play wandering the world attempting to "classify" their own sexuality. Carey, who thinks he might be bisexual, ends up with a woman. Bernard, conversely, winds up with a nutcase he meets in a bar; the man asks Bernard to dress up and act like a docile '50s-era television housewife, with dinner and cocktails ready at the door.
If that weren't odd enough, we also learn the strange history of Carey's family. Traveling back and forth through time, the play introduces us to his grandfather, who suffered from Tourette's syndrome, and his grandmother, who suffered some kind of psychological breakdown. Both were, perhaps not surprisingly, among Sheldon's guinea pigs. Then there's his mother, who abandoned him when he was ten, and the terrible father, who's into porn and never says more than three words to anyone.
These stories don't exactly intersect as much as bang up against each other. Sheldon's sociological bungle is told in snippets of voice-over commentary as Carey and Bernard's adventures unfold. Unfortunately the connection remains a mystery. But a strong cast and Richard Laub's fast-paced, sleight-of-hand direction keep this story humming, even if it ends up as nothing more than a frustrating puzzle that's missing an essential piece.
Triptych runs through April 8 at The Little Room Downstairs Theater, 2328 Bissonnet, (713)522-5737. $12-$15.
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