Actor’s Express’ ‘Stupid Bird’ soars before plummeting

Were the opening act of “Stupid (expletive) Bird” not so truly terrific, the closing act wouldn’t be such a dismal disappointment.

It’s too bad that Anton Chekhov isn’t still alive to collect any royalties of late. Coming on the heels of Horizon’s sensational “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” (soon to be remounted at Aurora), you might be tempted to call Actor’s Express’ season opener “Con and Mash and Nina and Dev.”

Where that earlier Christopher Durang piece only makes fleeting references to the Russian dramatist, “Bird” is a more direct reimagining of Chekhov’s classic “The Seagull.” As the show’s marketing tagline puts it, the play is “sort of adapted” by Aaron Posner. But while Durang manages to sustain a consistent comedic tone (even as he gradually addresses some serious issues), Posner’s script is more schizophrenic.

At first, it’s an inspired contemporary send-up, a perfect example of the kind of “new and original” art form embraced by its central character, a tortured playwright named Con. But later, it degenerates into exactly the kind of “conventional rip-off” he’s trying to question and challenge with a “site-specific performance event” titled “Here We Are.”

Express artistic director Freddie Ashley casts the show remarkably well, with a couple of exceptions. Unfortunately, a little of Robert Lee Hindsman’s morose Con goes a long way. He often comes across as more hysterical and high-strung than he does as sensitive or soul-searching, by turns “suffering” and insufferable. And, given his charismatic work earlier this year in Horizon’s “Grand Concourse,” Evan Cleaver is surprisingly bland as the arrogant new lover of Con’s mother, a self-absorbed actress.

She’s deliciously played by the lovely Lane Carlock (Theatrical Outfit’s “The Savannah Disputation”). The venerable Theo Harness (Stage Door’s “On Golden Pond”) brings a much-needed warmth to his part as a wise uncle, largely observing the action from a distance. Stephanie Friedman (from the Express’ recent “The Whale”) makes a fine tragic ingénue, although it sure would be nice to see her portray a more likable character, for a change.

By a similar token, it’s great watching the ever-engaging Matt Felten relishing a role in something besides yet another run-of-the-mill Shakespeare Tavern production. He’s a charming standout here, as is newcomer (at least to Atlanta) Rhyn Saver as the mutually melancholy object of his unrequited desire. Her musical interludes, including one duet with him, are simply delightful.

At different points, each of the characters delivers various asides directly to the audience, occasionally recapping events for us, filling us in on some of the gaps in the story, or stopping the show altogether to poll us for advice. Under Ashley’s energetic direction, in a particularly wonderful moment, one monologue even triggers an impromptu Russian dance number.

But, oh, Posner’s vastly inferior second act! Once you re-enter the theater after intermission, you may marvel at the sudden change in Leslie Taylor’s handsome scenic design: The timeless woods from before have given way to a modern-day kitchen. And, sadly, the refreshing urgency of the first act abruptly shifts to wallowing in a load of existential angst, as poor Con might so aptly put it.

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