Monster Talent

The Monster at the Door, in its world premiere at the Alley Theatre, begins innocently enough. An artist named Maya (Portia) arrives at the corporate headquarters of a global securities firm to discuss her bid to create a mural for the corporation's new building. Maya is a nervous sort, and her interview with corporate art "curator" Tonise (Rebecca Brooksher) doesn't calm her. Tonise is so distraught that she can scarcely talk; she can't even acknowledge there's broken glass scattered all over the floor. Then a white-haired gentleman named Fergueson (James A. Stephens) bursts into Tonise's office, outraged that he's been served sushi for lunch and proclaiming, "I don't eat raw fish!"

The same hypersensitivity that makes Maya an intuitive artist — and a nervous person — allows her to figure out what's going on. Tonise is having an affair with the older man, who turns out to be one of the securities firm's partners. But the affair must have just ended, which would explain the broken glass, Tonise's strange behavior and Fergueson's outburst. It's an impressive display of deduction, and playwright Rajiv Joseph could, if he wanted, turn Maya into a Monk-style detective.

Not that Joseph needs career advice. In addition to this world premiere at the Alley, his Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is currently garnering acclaim on Broadway; he also has four plays in various stages of development around the country, and as a day job he writes for Nurse Jackie. (The Alley also gave the world premiere of his Gruesome Playground Injuries in 2009.)


Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-220-5700.

The Monster at the Door
Through May 29.

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Anyway, Maya's intuitions so deeply affect Tonise that the very corporate curator virtually offers Maya the $1 million commission right on the spot. So the artist retreats to her studio to begin her "monster" — her artwork, that is, a sculpture she creates by assembling a million $1 bills into a vaguely meteor-like sculpture.

That's when the play turns surreal. Joseph doesn't do much explaining, but it appears that Maya's act of creation is so powerful that it has figuratively thrown the earth off its axis. People start behaving in strange ways. They acquire mysterious powers, and set off on superhuman quests.

Tonise, for example, is struck in her arm by a tiny meteor, which gives her healing powers. Driven by both a sense of cosmic responsibility and a yearning for sainthood, she leaves corporate America and sets out in search of suffering. But there's a downside. She has to draw the pain from others into her own healing arm, and store it there, which transforms her limb into a putrid, horrifying appendage. Tonise's transformation from uptight corporate functionary to raving healer is pulled off with total authority by Brooksher.

But all the performances are strong. Brian Reddy (Seinfeld's "high talker") plays Vince, the security guard who whiles away his work time by alternately scratching off lottery tickets and reading Homer, until Maya's sculpture appears in the lobby. Once he finds out that the piece is literally made out of money, he loses control and makes off with the Washingtons. Reddy's transformation from jovial security guard to violent thief (he has to pistol-whip a fellow employee to get the money), and then back to conscience-haunted regular guy, is one of the play's most profound elements.

Adam Green plays Jesse, who took the pistol-whipping. Jesse goes through such radical changes that at times I had to squint to make sure Green was still onstage. He starts out as a recognizable member of buttoned-up America, off on a corporate scuba-diving trip to Hawaii. Once in the water, though, he encounters Death, or the Ocean, or some kind of mystical force which is embodied in the person of Maya. She appears to him as he's scuba diving (during which he dangles from the ceiling in a charming bit of stagecraft), and says, "I'm Death." Jesse's reply — "I'm a tax attorney," gets a big laugh.

Portia is compelling as Maya/Death, whose cosmic vision shows her much more than she wants to see. But unlike the other characters, Maya doesn't really evolve, so Portia is ultimately given less to do than the rest of the cast. And Stephens's Fergueson is the least original of the characters, though Stephens does play him with depth and conviction as the corporate honcho sinks into disease and homelessness.

How does Joseph pull all this together? He doesn't, really. Some of the second act's scenes dangle a bit like the scuba diver, not really connected to the rest of the play. But in general the play maintains a surreal logic. That, combined with the imaginative and assured direction of Daniella Topol and the technical work of designers Kevin Rigdon (set), Amy Clark (costume), Tyler Micoleau (lighting) and Jill BC Duboff (sound), makes for an engaging and unpredictable evening of theater.

Joseph will probably write more fully realized plays than Monster (and apparently he already has, with Bengal Tiger), as his reach here somewhat exceeds his grasp. But he really does leave you wanting more.

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