Shrimpy Alice

Lobster Alice sounds like a cool idea. The play, by hometown girl-turned-Juilliard playwriting fellow Kira Obolensky, is based on the strange and serendipitous moment in pop culture history when surrealist Salvador Dalí went to work for Disney. Apparently, in the 1940s the cartoon company hired Dalí to create a short animated ballet. The ballet was never completed, but Dalí still spent six weeks in the Disney studios as the animators were finishing up Alice in Wonderland. The historical setup would seem to provide promising fodder for imaginative fiction. Unfortunately, the love story that Obolensky spins out of this surreal moment is as ho-hum-predictable as they come.

Alice Horowitz (Heather Bryson) is a pretty and good-natured girl Friday who carries sack lunches and a brown pocketbook to her Disney office every morning. A model of efficiency, she mother-hens over her boss, the nervously distant John Finch (David Matranga). Nothing's coming together for Finch; he's "worked all week on the drink-me section," and the smile on the Cheshire Cat is all wrong. To complicate matters further, it seems that Alice and John have had a moment in the past, a kiss, that only serves to strain their working relationship. It's clear that they like each other, but neither knows how to broach the subject.

Into their stale white-bread story comes the caped and mustached Dalí (Jason Douglas). Alice has already ordered his odd list of supplies, including a cowhide, the remnants of a 1964 Chevrolet (though it's only 1946), a gold fingernail file, silence and a dozen lobsters. Alice can't wait for Dalí's exotic entrance; John, of course, feels threatened.

When Dalí swoops in like a giant hawk, salaciously smiling at blond Alice, she can't help but coo. The first compliment the scatological genius bestows on the giggling girl is to look deep into her eyes and tell her that he knows she has "firm turds." His favorite childhood activity, he explains, was to defecate someplace in the house then stand back and watch his family tiptoe around looking for it.

Bizarre confessions aside, Dalí cannot save Obolensky's obvious story. Alice is swept off her feet by the tall Spaniard, who says such dark things as, "In Europe there are no smiles." Over the course of his stay in Hollywood, he takes her to lavish parties where she skinny-dips in glittering nighttime pools and learns to sound off his credo: "There is nothing more real than that which is surreal."

Meanwhile, John is getting more and more nettled by the great artist's presence in his office. Dalí wants to put "shit" into Alice in Wonderland; "It's everywhere, even in Wonderland," he purrs. Big rust-colored lobsters and fluffy white cottontails begin to show up in the studio. Chaos seems to be taking over. Even the clock melts. And worst of all, the green monster of jealousy literally crawls out of the couch to make love to Alice, who suddenly appears in John's imagination dressed in a blue pinafore, white ruffled underpants and black patent-leather pumps.

The problem with all these strange images is they are forced onto an otherwise uneventful story. We know from the start that uptight John is supposed to learn a thing or two about letting his imagination and his libido go. Even though he's got college-educated employees who know everything from "Wittgenstein to pickles," they don't know what Dalí knows: Art comes at the moment you "put things together in the imagination so that both things are changed forever." Of course, Dalí's job in this play is to put Alice and John together in a new way.

Alice wants adventure; John wants comfy nights at home. Dalí's visit teaches Alice that adventure isn't all it's cracked up to be (as in Alice in Wonderland), and John learns to let his mind go free. There are simply no surprises here.

The predictability of the story isn't helped much by this production. Director Peter Webster has gathered a good-looking but lackluster cast. Bryson's Alice has none of the mischievous sexuality that would send her skinny-dipping. And try as Dalí might, Matranga's John never catches fire over the course of the play. With his dark cape, shiny suits and waxed mustache, even the usually charming Douglas can't make Dalí more than a bundle of clichéd, almost Snidely Whiplash gestures.

Only the special effects are worth seeing here. I'm still puzzling over how designer John Gow got his wall clock to melt on stage. Otherwise, Lobster Alice is one adventure to be missed.

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Lee Williams