Part surreal black comedy, part cautionary moral fable, Zoo District's production of Quincy Long's "The Lively Lad" immerses viewers in a strikingly fresh alternative reality, playing fast and loose with conventional theatrical expectations while consistently obeying its own loopy internal logic.
Long's play posits a quasi-Victorian-era secret society in which unlucky males are gelded to become companions for upper-class debutantes, a la eunuchs in an "Arabian Nights" harem. This blunt metaphor for human cruelty proves wickedly hilarious in an unlikely but spectacularly effective stylistic marriage between formal comedy of manners and savage modern parody (think Oscar Wilde by way of Joe Orton), spiced with sardonic songs and live musical accompaniment.
The substantive script and well-crafted dialogue prove an ideal fit for Zoo District's eclectic, edgy performance style. Pushing the boundaries of the play's quirky universe, Joe Seely's inspired staging includes casting Christine Deaver -- an adult actress with the girth (and vocal range) of a Wagnerian Valkyrie -- as spoiled 13-year-old Little Eva, who badgers her wealthy widowed father for her very own eunuch.
Little Eva's demands put papa Jonathan Van Huffle (Ben Davis) in a quandary -- the eunuch fad is a barbaric outrage in the eyes of his newfound love, Miss McCraken (Gleason Bauer), a feisty waitress bent on "severing the Gordian knot that binds society to its pathology." Fighting emasculation with emancipation, Bauer's perfectly rendered crusading zeal and romantic sophistication sharply complement the foppish indifference Davis' Jonathan shows to the consequences of all his choices, from shady investments to overindulgent parenting.
Charles A. Wilson's clueless, simian manservant and Thomas Carroll's corrupt capitalist head a seamless supporting ensemble which includes Mari Weiss, Becky Wahlstrom and Colleen Kane. Stylish production values consistently satisfy.
The comedy darkens with the appearance of a haunting, accusatory eunuch (Joe Fria, standing in for Lucas Guerin), newly castrated at a drunken behest that Jonathan can't even remember. Forcing Jonathan to accept responsibility for cleaning up his messes is the moral spine that brings the parallel reality of "The Lively Lad" into surprising -- and, for all its offbeat humor, sometimes disquieting -- congruence with our own.
'The Lively Lad'
Where: [Inside] the Ford, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood
When: Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. (dark April 20)
Ends: April 27
Price: $15 to $20
Contact: (323) 461-3673 or www.tickets.com
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes