In “Wolves,” Atlanta native Steve Yockey’s world-premiere play at Actor’s Express through December 2, an icily glamorous and bitingly funny female narrator (Kate Donadio) guides us through a long and terrible night at the apartment of Ben (Clifton Guterman) and his roommate and sometime boyfriend, Jack (Brian Crawford).
Ben has recently moved from the small town to the big city. Clearly never the stablest of young men, his vulnerability has turned into full-blown paranoia about the place where he lives. It’s his outrageous fear of the “wolves” outside his door that puts the extra cray in cray-cray.
To taunt the needy Ben and to prove that the city isn’t the dark, predatory wolf-filled forest he imagines it to be, Jack brings home a “wolf” (Joe Sykes) from a bar one night. Things turn violent, and we discover that the play requires its narrator not just to elucidate the story and characters, but to carry out a bucket of stage blood and pour it in the right place.
With “Wolves,” Yockey has written a sharp, darkly funny urban parable. Donadio as the icily witty narrator is a real standout in a strong cast, and the play’s basic set-up — a powerful, glamorous, erotically inaccessible woman presiding over the messier actions of vulnerable, clumsy, sexually needy men — seems totally fresh and interesting. Seamus Bourne’s edgy set design, with its black walls, taped architectural lines on the floor and projected scene titles, is a great match for Yockey’s urbane, spare style.
But for all the story’s hard, violent edge, the male characters tend to be overly whiny and needy. An argument between Ben and Jack about Jack’s going out lasts way too long and causes the first half of the show to stall. Ben’s madness is given to us in detail, in several monologues even. But it’s too obviously a literary sort of madness, with delusions that the city is a forest, that predatory people are wolves and so on. It’s the type of madness that could appear only in a play, and there it is: in a play.
Ben and Jack live in a big-city apartment with a stack of firewood and an ax outside the door. It’s a nice mythic touch, but the goings-on never quite develop the universality or archetypal heft of myth or fairy tale. Yockey skillfully sends up the idea of a safe place — our need for safety and our paranoia about the dangers outside the door are often far more dangerous than anything we might fear. But the exaggerated depiction of this need as theatrical madness prevents the story from having the impact it aims for. A character’s psychosis is always hard for audiences to connect to, I think, but it’s even harder when the psychosis requires willing suspension of disbelief.
Nonetheless, “Wolves” is smart, funny, dark contemporary theater that has found a good home at Actor’s Express. It’s an unsafe space that’s well worth a visit.