If you have been following the career of playwright Ben Clawson (Montclair State ’07), as we have, you can’t help but come away from his latest, “Omnivores,” with the feeling: this boy is growing up.
“Omnivores,” a Strange Dog Theatre production at Playwrights Theater in Madison, is an ambitious attempt to overlay unresolved family conflicts on a ripped-from-the-headlines event — a woman grievously injured when a teen prankster drops a frozen turkey from a highway bridge onto her passing car.
Clawson is at his best when he’s being wise-crackingly funny. When he digs into the family conflicts, he stays a bit on the surface, though as someone raised to believe the wisecrack is the highest form of human expression, it’s a bit hard for me to complain.
The production is well served by director Artem Yatsunov’s pacing and the work of his four-man cast.
The heart of the play is the lifelong conflict between brothers. Cole Mitchell (Joseph Palestina) is an unhappy community college adjunct professor. His brother Clyde (Brian Parks) is a construction worker bristling with resentments.
Parks gives Clyde an anti-intellectual intelligence that makes him a magnetic presence. Palestina’s Cole plays the Clawson patter very well, though he sometimes looks uncomfortable. There’s a line between playing uncomfortable and being uncomfortable, and Palestina sometimes crosses it.
Scott Cagney, who specializes in doofuses overwhelmed by their circumstances, turns in a strong performance as the terrorized prankster Louis, dripping in bodily fluids. Thom Molyneaux is a riot as the brothers’ Uncle Nutsy, who embraces his status as the family primitive.
And we have to mention the set, a well-executed grimy cabin in the woods.
Is it worth driving all the way to Madison? Yes. Despite its humor, “Omnivores,” Clawson’s most ambitious play to date, never gives its audience a rest. But then, plays in which a gun appears during the first act so rarely do.
“Omnivores” continues through next weekend, with 8 pm performances tonight (Friday, 11/4) and next Thursday, Friday and Saturday (11/10-12). This Saturday (11/5) is College Night, with free pizza at intermission and a 10 pm curtain. For more information, go to the Strange Dog website.