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Theater review: Alligator is a swampy Florida drama without much bite

Written by
Helen Shaw

“Are ya ready?” the guy striding around the theater yells at us. “Are ya ready?!?” “Yes!,” we scream dutifully back at him, since he's super-insistent that we should sound like “a pig in the slaughterhouse.” Do we? No matter. Grubby 19-year-old Ty (Dakota Granados) and his grubbier sister Emerald (Lindsay Rico) will return periodicallyto give us more chances to get loud—spurring us on, pretending we're Everglades tourists itchy for some gator-wrestling. Yet over the long course of Hilary Bettis's Alligator, it kept turning out I was not ready. Or rather, having seen too many of these intense-o-rama dramas sensationalizing the poor South, I found I had passed through “ready” and was on to “over it.”

According to a note in the script, Bettis is writing in an “operatic” mode. And in the good news, there is music: fantastic roots-rock that bangs out from behind a wall of wooden slats (Arnulfo Maldonado did the clever set design). Musicians Daniel Ocanto, Graham Ulicny and Sean Smith fill the small theater at the ART/New York space with riotous noise and celebration. And the theater, a beautiful brand new venue in this inhospitable city, is worthy of it. But the text inside is thin. The metaphors are all embodied clichés: wrestle your addiction, wrestle an alligator. And characters get one characteristic each. Emerald's a drunk. Lucy (Talene Monahon) is obsessed with her. (No reason, just 'cause.) Neighbor Merick (Samuel H. Levine) wants to lose his virginity, while his beloved Diane (Lexi Lapp) withholds. In this 2D world, scenes repeat. How many times can Emerald ask for a bottle of whisky? Or Merick whine for sex? Bettis hasn't invented anything else for them to want; she sees her characters as compositional elements, percussive objects that can be banged together.

So the play hasn't got texture—but there’s atmosphere by the bucketful. In this sort of overheated gothic, everything that can be extreme is extreme. Ty's high-school friend Danny (Julian Elijah Martinez) comes home from college, and the pair can't stop seducing, punching and threatening each other. They deliberately hit raccoons with their car. Extreme! Danny has sudden empathy for a dying raccoon. Extreme! Someone says “I'm a raccoon” in an accidentally hilarious homage to The Seagull. Super extreme! And yet even though we're in trash-burlesque territory, it's all played in deadly earnest. Halfway through, Bobby Moreno shows up as an alligator representing alcohol dependency (his stupendous puppet-costume was designed by Jessica Scott). And even then the play kept taking itself seriously, though it had long since wandered into the swamps of the ridiculous.

Elena Araoz is a director with deep wells of imagination; she seems drawn to magical realist work like this (she also directed Dipika Guha's Mechanics of Love), and she and her team do impressive work. But she lets her performers work at a volume that would fit a much larger space. Perhaps the play wants to be a film, one with lots of dancing dust motes and ugly-beautiful trailer homes, like Beasts of the Southern Wild (Bettis is actually from the south).You might have a different medium in mind when you write stage directions like: “The smiles turn to laughter, under the sky, under the sun, under the stars, under the universe that will be here long, long, long after we are gone.” If that doesn't call for a long zoom out, I don't know what does.

ART/New York Theatres (Off Broadway). By Hilary Bettis. Directed by Elena Araoz. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 15mins. One intermission. Through Dec 18. Click here for full ticket and venue information.

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