A kind of alchemy occurs whenever actor Joe Sykes appears in the work of playwright Steve Yockey. Over nearly a decade of collaboration, Sykes reliably discovers the deepest levels of meaning and implication in Yockey's scripts, from a cheerful, gay shopkeeper in Dad's Garage's Large Animal Games to a swaggering, lethally cool character appropriately called "Rockstar" in Out of Hand Theater's Cartoon. That old black magic between performer and written word returns with Wolves, Yockey's latest world premiere at Actor's Express.
An Atlanta native now based in Los Angeles, Yockey draws loosely on a personal experience for Wolves' premise. Clifton Guterman and Brian Crawford play Ben and Jack, lovers who've broken up, yet still awkwardly share a tiny apartment in an unnamed New York City. Audiences with long memories will recall that Guterman and Crawford played the gay teens who fell in love in the Actor's Express production of Beautiful Thing a decade ago. Although the still-boyish actors play drastically different roles, Wolves' casting suggests that the pair got together and failed to live happily ever after.
Ben finds the city increasingly threatening and is turning into a shut-in, something we learn from the perky, omniscient narrator, played by Kate Donadio with the devil-may-care abandon of a "Mad Men"-era party hostess. When Jack tries to go out one evening in the hope of finding some company, Ben waylays him, pointing out the risks of random hook-ups. Like Yockey's previous Actor's Express premiere, the hit Octopus, the playwright uses imagery of monsters in urban environments to represent more ordinary anxieties. But when Ben literally speaks of the city as a "forest" and the potential predators as "wolves," and other characters share in the storybook affectation, it feels as if the audience isn't being trusted to connect the metaphorical dots.
Jack brings someone home whom he addresses as "Wolf" (Sykes), either to needle Ben, live out some rough role-play, or both. But Wolf isn't his real name and the lupine label doesn't fit his personality. Sykes affectingly captures the stranger as a lonely guy who feels disillusioned with the singles scene and is reluctant to become part of the roommates' drama. In a surprisingly brief period, Sykes captures an original, three-dimensional personality, where least expected.
As per the narrator's foreshadowing, things go very wrong in the apartment over the course of the evening. Director Melissa Foulger helms some ingenious violence effects so powerful they overbalance the remainder of the play. When the characters grapple with the consequences of some shocking actions, the dark comedy tips the scales away from the weightier themes, as if the action has shifted to a madcap "Kids in the Hall" sketch.
At a brisk 70 minutes, Wolves is the rare production that I wish were longer. Wolves leaves the audience more moved by its Grand Guignol imagery than the choices and ultimate fates of its characters. Wolves' stark simplicity can cut viewers to the quick, but its personalities could support a deeper exploration. Sykes and company would certainly be up for the challenge.