Vanity Fare 

Youth and beauty get their comeuppance.

The Fastest Clock in the Universe

A Red Orchid Theatre

People who try to cling to their youth fare about as well as those who slay their fathers and sleep with their moms. Hanging on to beauty can only end in ugliness, as characters like Snow White's stepmother, Dorian Gray, and Norma Desmond have demonstrated.

We can now add to that vainglorious lineup Cougar Glass, the protagonist of Philip Ridley's black comedy The Fastest Clock in the Universe, currently receiving a smart, tangy production at A Red Orchid Theatre. Ridley--the Brit who penned the screenplay for the 1990 crime thriller The Krays--possesses the rare gift of writing darkly and humorously at the same time. Though contemporary writers like Neil LaBute (Bash, The Shape of Things) are consistently identified as masters of black comedy, they're actually punishing nihilists who wouldn't know a decent joke if they slipped on its peel. Meanwhile Ridley comes up with lines like "I could have a stomach full of maggots, for all I care, as long as I've got a suntan."

Although Ridley takes a two-and-a-half-hour plunge into ultraviolence a la Clockwork Orange, the descent is a bracing, acid-dipped effort that smacks of Joe Orton's wickedly offbeat late-60s chillers. In fact Ridley has so much fun just naming his characters--Foxtrot Darling, Sherbet Gravel, Cheetah Bee--that you can't help but have a good time too.

In this cautionary tale Cougar Glass is a gorgeous specimen who expects to get whatever--or whomever--he wants for his 19th birthday. Or any other day, for that matter. And why shouldn't he? His head of luxurious black hair alone should be a pass to the world's riches--and that's without regard to his chiseled midsection, randy foul mouth, and reckless Stanley Kowalski swagger.

Cougar shares a flat with Captain Tock, a shriveled crone of a man who worships him in a way that makes garden-variety sadomasochism look like a game of Candy Land. Even though Cougar constantly and cruelly rejects him, the Captain will see to it that he gets the perfect 19th birthday party and that Cougar's guest of honor is treated royally. The guest is 16-year-old Foxtrot Darling, a starry-eyed lad Cougar recently befriended. Prepared to pounce on the luscious innocent, Cougar is extremely displeased when Foxtrot shows up with his pregnant fiancee, magenta-haired tartlet Sherbet Gravel. As Cougar begins to realize that Foxtrot might not be his conquest after all, the party turns into a strange and delightful variation on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? complete with violent party games, boozy revelations, and plenty of kinky interplay between the jaded old couple and naive younger one.

As directed by Dado, A Red Orchid Theatre's production is mostly in tune with the play's cockeyed dialogue and whimsy. Ridley could easily have eliminated 15 minutes of dopey metaphors, including allusions to the title timepiece and lots of taxidermy analogies. But Dado paces things briskly, and Robert G. Smith's set is a fetching shrine to kitsch in a groovy Willy Winks palette.

As Cougar, Dan Kuhlman is all things young and violent. And to his credit, he fiercely protects Cougar's secret, revealed in the second act. Pouty and seductive in the first, Cougar barely says a word in the second: disgusted that he can't have Foxtrot to himself, he merely broods and grunts until he explodes at the play's climax.

Jen Engstrom is a hoot in her cameo as an Edward Gorey-style neighbor wearing a lipstick smear. But the evening belongs to Larry Neumann Jr., whose fey, shriveled Captain Tock is a careful and lovely accomplishment. It's devastating to watch him fawn over Cougar, who will merely punish him for his loyalty. And though the Captain has received the least love of any of the characters, he understands it the best, speaking gently of the nature of true beauty while bathed in the glow of Cougar's 19 birthday candles.

Because Dado and her cast carefully calibrated the evening's tension, the brutal apex is oddly gratifying. And James McKay and Katlyn Carlson give such outrageous naivete to dingbat youngsters Foxtrot and Sherbet that we enjoy seeing them confront reality. Childishly enthusiastic, Sherbet brings Groucho Marx glasses and party hats to the birthday celebration and forces everyone to wear them. The absurdity of four grown-ups in false noses, specs, and mustaches philosophizing about sex and mortality is typical of Ridley's screwball tomfoolery.

Because the play's comedy, barbarism, and humanity seem to exist independently of one another, any production has more potential to be bumpy than smooth. But the Red Orchid cast handles each moment as it comes, so the script's rapid shifts in tone and action are never jarring. Though the play's events are both very funny and truly awful, the humor and the horror don't cancel each other out--they simply coexist in the same flat on the same night. In fact it's this gracious tolerance for contradiction that makes for true black comedy.

When: Through 12/5: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 7 PM

Where: A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells

Price: $14-$20

Info: 312-943-8722

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