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Monkey Biz

Ed Rampell: Trevor epitomizes the L.A. theatrical trend of actors with big and little screen credits stretching their artistic muscles by treading on the boards - and perhaps showcasing a production in hope that it might be picked up by Broadway, Hollywood, etc.

Trevor

Jimmi Simpson and Laurie Metcalf (Photo: Ryan Miller)

TREVOR Theater Review

Your intrepid reviewer has recently seen several shows for which his critique could have been summed up in just a few words: “I could’ve lived without it.” But not so with Circle X Theatre Co.’s production of Trevor, a true gem that makes venturing forth to L.A.’s live stages a rewarding endeavor that’s well worth the effort.

This critic has a policy of not reading press notes once he has made up his mind to see a show. So it was with Trevor - upon learning that Laurie Metcalf was the female lead, he immediately decided to see this play, because long before, she co-starred as the sister on the Roseanne TV series, your reviewer saw Metcalf co-star in Lanford Wilson’s Balm in Gilead, opposite Danton Stone Off-Broadway at Circle in the Square (or was it at Circle Rep? Always mixed those two up!). The memory from 30 years ago of that stellar drama, directed by John Malkovich, was enough of a balm to convince this scribbler to cover Trevor and to stop reading any press release or press notes info before attending the premiere. (While this practice saves one from plot spoilers that deprive theatergoers of the delight of surprise, it sometimes backfires, leading to seeing shows that might otherwise have been avoided. What’s a critic to do, Dear Reader?)

MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE REVIEW:

So when the proverbial curtain rose your theatre beat reporter started to dislike Trevor immediately, when - wearing a tie, button up shirt, long pants - Jimmi Simpson as the title character loped onstage and mused about not getting a Dunkin Donuts gig. Enter Sandra (Metcalf), who scolds Trevor for being a bad boy, and this critic cringed in his seat, fearing he was in for two hours of Metcalf doing her sitcom shtick ad nauseam in yet another work about a manchild who won’t/can’t grow up.

But within a couple of minutes your in-the-dark reviewer was disabused of this erroneous notion as he realized that Trevor is no “manchild,” but rather a “man monkey” who has been raised by, and is living with, humans, as if he is one of we Homo sapiens. Once the proverbial light bulb went off above your scribbler’s skull, playwright Nick Jones’ Trevor became a compelling tragicomedy of the first order.

Trevor epitomizes the L.A. theatrical trend of actors with big and little screen credits stretching their artistic muscles by treading on the boards - and perhaps showcasing a production in hope that it might be picked up by Broadway, Hollywood, etc.

This subject of inter-species cohabitation can be an extremely fascinating one, especially between humans and creatures who have 98% of our genetic makeup. Living near Covina a while back your humble scribe sometimes drove past the former home of Moe the Chimp, festooned with signs demanding “Free Moe!”, the chimpanzee who’d grown up among humans and was treated like one, until authorities deemed his behavior to be dangerous and he was confined to an animal sanctuary. So, through Trevor’s publicist, Jones was asked if the Covina monkey influenced his play and the response was: “The play was loosely informed by Travis the chimp, although we know about Moe too.”

As Travis lived in Connecticut, not Covina, your critic had never heard of this actual chimp raised by humans in captivity at Stamford. But what made Travis so interesting as a character is that he had a show biz career and Trevor skillfully mines this nugget for all it’s worth. As the N.Y. Times noted in 2009, Travis “was a natural ham, leading to commercials for Coca-Cola and Old Navy, in which he played the role of Gilligan, starring with a klatch of B-list icons, pedaling a bamboo bike attached to a palm frond to fan Morgan Fairchild, with whom he then sipped tropical drinks.”

Brenda Strong (a Desperate Housewives and Dallas alum) plays a sexually alluring Fairchild, wherein Jones and Simpson successfully take us into the mind of this fish out of water character. While pursuing the whole inter-species storyline, Trevor also explores the acting life (although some wags among us might crack wise that actors, too, are a different species). There are great insider show biz jokes and insights into the nature of acting and the entertainment industry. So Trevor is a marvelous mixture of monkey business and show biz. (Fun fact of the day: Travis even appeared in a TV pilot with Michael Moore!)

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But in addition to this, Jones and Simpson take us into the chimp’s libido. Do monkeys have sexual fantasies? The interplay between Trevor and Fairchild suggests so. (Can you say: “Me Trevor, you Jane?”) Plus another show biz simian, Oliver (Bob Clendenin of the TV sitcom Cougar Town), who is clad in white tie and tails, has supposedly wed not one but two human females, and has half-human offspring. Chimpanzees may make for cuddly, cute companions when they are youngsters but once they hit puberty, it seems that all bets (and pets) are off.

But the complexities and nuances of Jones’ script do not end there, as Trevor is very much about family, too. Metcalf conveys this through her character’s ongoing fixation with the monkey, who is the one being who has never let her down. And the dramatist also makes us ponder, how do chimpanzees process death? One of the few African Americans at the premiere commented that Trevor could even be a metaphor about racism.

The abundant laughs in the first act payoff in Act II, when all hell breaks loose (as, alas, they did in real life). Features and documentaries have also explored this absorbing notion of monkeys being raised by and living as humans, but Trevor is by far the best one this reviewer has seen.

The acting, staging and direction (by Stella Powell-Jones) are all top notch. Scenic designer Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s set perfectly captures the suburban squalor that looks like, well, a chimp lives there. Special kudos to the uncanny Simpson, who without wearing a hairy monkey suit or some other artifices manages to not only physically transform himself into a chimpanzee with the way he walks and so on, but also into the mind and very thought process of this critter out of sorts. Simpson’s transformation sans costuming, prosthetics, wigs, et al, calls to mind Bradley Cooper’s Broadway transmogrification in The Elephant Man solely through, you know, acting.

Trevor epitomizes the L.A. theatrical trend of actors with big and little screen credits (Metcalf concurrently has comedies on cable and network TV) stretching their artistic muscles by treading on the boards - and perhaps showcasing a production in hope that it might be picked up by Broadway, Hollywood, etc. Angeleno audiences are the beneficiaries of this legit stage vogue per the vagaries of La-La-Land thee-a-tuh. The opening night star-studded aud included Danny De Vito, Rhea Pearlman, Scandal’s new veep Artemis Pebdani, etc., at the Atwater Village Theatre, which with four stages and a welcoming courtyard is quite a cultural venue and attraction. Circle X marks the spot for great theatre.

Although this edgy show with some touchy subject matter may not be for children and very sensitive viewers, all of the above enhanced the fact that seeing Trevor is, well, more fun than a barrel of monkeys.

Circle X Theatre Co. production of Trevor runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m.; Sundays at 2:00 p.m. through April 19 at Atwater Village Theatre, Theatre #1, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village, CA 90039. Reservations: www.circlextheatre.org.

Ed Rampell

 Ed Rampell

L.A.-based criticEd Rampell is co-author/author of four movie film history books, including “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” (http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/).