Urban Legend

Wearing little more than a black bustier, fishnet stockings and a smirk, Benita sits down to tell her stories. They're the blood-soaked tales usually told by flashlight at slumber parties -- like the one about the brave boyfriend who slips into the woods to investigate a strange sound only to end up beheaded, dripping blood on the Chevy's hood all night long. The fact that sexy, psychic Benita (Laura Hooper) knows how to measure out her stories with spooky pauses and sidelong glances makes it that much creepier when she tosses back her hair and laughs long and hard at the gory endings.

This is the gruesome beginning of Brad Fraser's Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love, a play that snatches the urban folktale out of the mouths of giggling girls and plops it onto the Theater LaB stage. All the standard stuff of horror is here: naive young women, steamy nights with strangers, the possibility of sex in the woods, unnerving phone calls and a murderous psychopath running loose in the night.

The mayhem takes place in Edmonton, Alberta, but this group of twentysomethings could hail from most any lonely city. At the story's center are Candy (Holly Vogt Wilkison) and David (Jack E. Birdwell), roommates and best friends. She's straight, he's gay, and they're both looking for love in all the wrong places. Into their lives comes a slew of potential lovers -- some good, some bad, and some scary.

Needled by her own neuroses, Candy obsesses over everything: Spots on the futon make her apoplectic; dust on the floor gets her all in a flutter. But the blond's biggest worry is her thin waist. She's so terrified of getting fat that she spends endless hours working out. At the gym, Candy meets Jerri (Marie Hennebery), a lesbian with her own obsession: Candy. And though Candy isn't truly tempted, she enjoys Jerri's attention, not realizing how risky that attention might be. Things get really weird when she meets Robert (Adam Clarke), a bartender who serves her club sodas every day after her workout. She agrees to date him, even though she knows nothing about him except that he's no ax murderer -- or so he says.

David is tangled up in his own strange flirtations. At work he meets pretty-boy Kane (Ben Pollock), who's reached the wise old age of 18 and thinks he's straight. Kane doesn't know what to do about his crush on David, so they spend lots of time hanging out in an arcade with nothing steamier than video war games happening between them. Then frustrated David goes cruising in the park. He's worried about "the virus," but just like the teenagers of every urban legend who are warned to stay out of the woods at night, he's too lonely to stop himself.

David brings the men who confuse him to meet Benita, a redheaded prostitute whose extraordinary abilities include "reading" people's souls. Benita looks into Kane's puppy-dog eyes and knows he loves David. But when David brings Bernie (Tom Stell) over, Benita is terrified. We don't need psychic powers to know Bernie is trouble.

In the first place, there's a serial killer running around Edmonton. And Bernie keeps showing up at David's apartment in the middle of the night, covered in blood. He claims he's been "fighting," but his clenched jaw, big fists and cruel grin imply that he's guilty of much worse. Even though he's married and insists he's straight, Bernie's favorite sexual activity is to have three-ways with his best bud, David, "just like in high school." This kind of repression, predictably, leads to violent behavior.

But even though we suspect Bernie is the bad guy from the very start, director Ed Muth turns this tale of murder and loneliness into a real nail-biter. Informed by television and film (Fraser turned his script into a movie, Love and Human Remains, in 1993), the plot comes at us in shreds of dialogue, moving quickly about the city from a video arcade to a park at midnight to David and Candy's apartment. The set is more awkward than it needs to be; a brown leather couch pushed about during blackouts becomes a clumsy focal point. But Muth's ensemble of actors -- headed up by two newcomers to the Houston stage -- is strong.

As David and Candy, the roommates who save the day, Birdwell and Wilkison are hysterically neurotic. They bicker and bitch about their lonely lives with the narcissism that comes from watching television and exercising too much. Hooper's Benita, who gazes out at the world with the darkest blue eyes, is a sultry, spooky shaman. Stell's Bernie is perhaps too robotically evil, walking about with a perpetual sneer on his lips. Why David continues to be his friend is a mystery.

As with any gory story where psychopaths troll suburban basements, the fun of this show lies in its telling. And Muth does a hair-raising job, weaving the adolescent thrill of melodrama into Fraser's Remains.

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Lee Williams