Only history could be so surreal: In 1946, Salvador Dali spent six weeks at Walt Disney Studios hanging out with a young animator working on "Alice in Wonderland." Enticed by this tantalizing footnote in the artist's biography, playwright Kira Obolensky invents a theatrical dream world in which the man who famously envisioned melting clocks helps (in his signature boundary-blurring way) a reluctant couple melt into each other.
Not surprisingly, "Lobster Alice," which opened Saturday at the Blank Theatre Company's 2nd Stage Theatre with actor Noah Wyle transforming himself into the flamboyantly self-dramatizing painter, is an invitation for the most delightful visual whimsy. Treated as a hallucinatory screwball comedy by Blank artistic director Daniel Henning, the production opens a portal to a wonderland that, like a Dali canvas, grows more troubling as its deranged details come into view.
Admittedly, the thimbleful of story doesn't stretch very far. And the moral (yes, there's one of those) seems quaint to the point of trifling. Yet style-wise the piece is inspired.
The three leads turn in nearly pitch-perfect performances that conjure a particular 1940s Hollywood universe. Finch (Nicholas Brendon) is prepared to sacrifice everything to the corporate boss, including a personal life. He wants to make genial movies American families can brainlessly adore, even when he's working on something as reality-skewing as Lewis Carroll's classic.
Alice (Dorie Barton, in snazzy period outfits that would have made Carol Lombard jealous) is his office assistant. She's too smart for the job but sticks around out of a slow-budding affection she hopes will eventually blossom into something more meaningful.
Enter the mustachioed great man, an artiste not above commercial dabbling as long as he doesn't have to satisfy anything but his own whims. Opposed to blockage of any kind (creative, erotic or plain old intestinal), he works to liberate the office energy, loosening Finch's grip on conventionality, releasing the animal inside of Alice and routinely checking in on everyone's personal (and I mean personal!) business.
It's not long before Finch, doodling day and night at his desk, breaks out in a cold sweat as the characters from "Alice in Wonderland" take on qualities of Dali's sinister influence. (Brendon's portrayal brings to mind Matthew Broderick quaking on amphetamines.) And while Alice's introduction to the limitless carnal possibilities of the bohemian world springs her long hair from its stylish snood, it's evident from the slightly zonked look in Barton's eyes that the adventures are taking a toll.
Wyle, acting in a madcap reverie that his old character on "ER" would have found grounds for the psych ward, memorably illustrates a personality more topsy-turvy than any Disney could imagine. Not only is the low register of his European playboy accent perfect, but his uninhibited eccentricity is tactfully calibrated to never upstage what's really at stake: the would-be lovers' return to a romantically heightened normality.
Kudos to Henning's design team for creating such a fluid realm of theatrical fantasy. There's so much to praise in Robert Prior's magical sets and costumes, but the white couch that allows entry to another dimension of anthropomorphic existence is a stroke of silly genius.
When Thorton (Michael Grant Terry), Alice's former beau who was killed in the war, arrives from some hidden hole in the sofa to shed light on her back story, who would ever expect he'd be followed by an array of creatures, crustacean and otherwise, whose cuteness only intensifies their borderline psychotic menace.
If only the play's dramatic vision were as integrated as its pictorial possibilities.
But Henning's fluid production vividly makes Obolensky's point that as nice a place as the subconscious is to visit, you wouldn't necessarily want to live there.
Where: 2nd Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 and 7 p.m. Sundays
Ends: Sept. 3
Price: $22 to $28
Contact: (323) 661-9827
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes