Monologue plays are generally undercooked, overwritten stunts designed to keep a writer from dealing with such awkward things as dramatic action and character development—unless, of course, the writer is someone like Jason Lindner, with talent and a clear purpose. His The Pledge Drive: Ruminations on the Hunger Artist is an extraordinary, if occasionally frustrating, piece of theater.
Intended as a celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Hunger Artists Theatre Company, Lindner's play is more discombobulation than deconstruction of the Franz Kafka short story that christened the troupe. Lindner and director Shannon C.M. Flynn retain the heart of Kafka's tale: an artist who takes extraordinary steps to punish himself in the honorable pursuit of his calling. But this version is set inside an ersatz television studio in which a grisly telethon takes place, with vacuous TV anchors and a bizarre collection of characters ranging from S&M sex slaves to black-faced minstrels.
It's a vaudeville procession on psilocybin, and it's wickedly twisted fun. Lindner—the New York-based playwright responsible for the troupe's uncannily brilliant The Gog/Magog Projecttwo years ago—is a bright, fearless writer who channels chaos theory and the Marquis de Sade in his horrifyingly humorous takes on people who refuse to stray from their chosen paths—even if those paths lead them into places not many would follow. Ruminationsnever quite coalesces into a uniform whole, if only because there's just so much going on here. The Rube Goldberg-like contraption that looms over the proceedings never really pays off, and some of the material, such as the TV anchors, seems superfluous.
But these are small complaints. The ensemble shines, with Katie Chidester's earnest minstrel tap dancer and Darcy Lythgoe's deranged office manager getting the funniest pieces. And the most exquisite, poignant writing, and the heart of this play, is found in Kelly Flynn's Chekhovian portrayal of a toothless circus bear. As this once-mighty beast reminisces about a glorious past and resigns itself to a future on an increasingly slim margin, echoes and vibrations of all sorts can be felt, from the twilight of empires to the sobering realization that although one's day in the limelight has waned, the stage still beckons—as long as you're willing to suffer for it.
THE PLEDGE DRIVE: RUMINATIONS ON THE HUNGER ARTIST, HUNGER ARTISTS THEATRE COMPANY, 699-A S. STATE COLLEGE BLVD., FULLERTON, (714) 680-6803. FRI.-SAT., 8 P.M.; SUN., 7 P.M. ALSO MON., MAY 22, 8 P.M. THROUGH JUNE 4. $15-$18.