Chops, the first play by Kirin McCrory, is an alt-Victorian parlor-piece without any of the trappings of self-aggrandizement. The action is fierce, a series of verbal cage matches that show off McCrory’s gift for eviscerating dialogue.
The play is the winner of the 2011 Newfest Play competition, the twentieth annual playwrighting competition at Emerson College. The show was directed by Newfest’s first winner, Joe Antoun.
Chops is the story of Marg (Landry Albright), a seeming black widow despised by polite society. Soon, the entire town comes calling, led by her rival Oliviette (Brittany Halls). Olivette is clearly the villain, even if she wasn’’t clad all in black; her humor is cutting (telling one accomplice “if your parenting is so substandard, feel free to imitate mine”) and, unlike most matrons, she’s not afraid to get physical.
Halls is magnificent; she manages to draw dozens of laughs out of the audience without being likable or gnawing on the scenery.
Not that the scenery is much to be drawn on; there’s a selection of chairs, a frequently used tea-set, and a table that acts as a purse-receptacle. The only thing out of place is a corpse, Marg’s latest husband and the fulcrum of the play’s conflict. Most of the action is downstage and little separates violent characters from each other; they constantly march across the stage at the latest indignity and have to be restrained, either by the underappreciated maid Sahandrin (Rosie Moan) or the brilliantly bumbling constables (Timothy Brown and Ryan Wenke). Though beautiful, the set doesn’t provide much of an obstacle to the actors, and the upstage area is completely underutilized.
The costuming is the star of the show.
Designed by Juliana Gregori, the dresses are bright and tight, reflecting the high fashion and rigidity required by all the women of the show. Makeup could be better; the doddering Commissioner (Abigail Vega) is supposed to be elderly, but there’s not a gray hair on her head.
As a whole, Chops is a gilded lily. Director Joe Antoun makes sure the physical humor is well played (including one particularly good chair-stealing gag), and the dialogue is corset-tight. But the play seems obsessed with creating a disunity of place; “Oriental” is replaced with “Eeriental”, “Ged” replaces “God”, and the Victorian nation of the play has senators and presidents. Some of the names are honestly ridiculous; the perpetually mourner ‘Clarrisik’ sounds more like a coughing disease. And the play’s themes (machination, social custom, and the cold war between the sexes) aren’t advanced by these callouts to its otherness. Perhaps the play is too human, too compelling for strangeness to exist.
Despite an off stage harpsichord rendition of Stairway to Heaven, the play emulates Wilde so well that the oddities act as obfuscation, not mystery.
But it’s impossible to over-praise Chops’s language. Its “antiquarian threat formalities” delight the crowd, drawing Maury-esque “ooohs” and gasps. A veteran of stage combat, McCrory has her heroines tear each other to pieces. Particularly memorable is one threat by Sahandrin to Oliviette. “When an animal got rabid… we would corral it to the center square and take turns beatin’ it to death with whatever objects happened to be nearby. Shoes, sticks, rocks…. sometimes, [we’d] just as soon use our bare hands to rip it to pieces.” Sahandrin finishes by demanding that Olivette stay “as still as the chair she’s sitting in”.
The show hit a few odd notes, (the conflict of the play ends ten minutes before the curtain closes, and some of the early monologues seem to be entirely expository) but Chops is a treat for the ears as much as the eyes.
[Thu 3.24.11-Sun 3.27.11. Emerson Stage, 10 Boylston Pl., Boston. 617.824.8000. 8pm Thu-Sat, 2pm Sat-Sun/all ages/$10, $8 students. emerson.edu]