To follow the lead of the Narrator in his latest drama, “Wolves,” let’s be right up front with both the good news and the bad news about Steve Yockey plays. They’re not quite like anything else you’ve ever seen before — except for other Steve Yockey plays.
Before earning his master’s of fine arts in dramatic writing from New York University and later relocating to Los Angeles, Yockey, an Atlanta native and University of Georgia undergrad, was a notable fixture on the local scene: “Cartoon” (2006), produced by Out of Hand Theater; “Skin” (2007) and “Large Animal Games” (2009) at Dad’s Garage; Actor’s Express’ “Octopus” (2008).
If you are among the uninitiated, you certainly owe it to yourself to experience at least one Yockey show in your lifetime, and you might be in store for a dazzling treat with director Melissa Foulger’s arresting Express staging of “Wolves.”
But if you’re privy to Yockey’s earlier work, some of the shock value in “Wolves” may feel like a case of deja vu, as though the playwright were treading in familiar waters. As usual, with undercurrents of a twisted and foreboding sexual nature, he establishes a compelling premise involving realistic characters and situations, only to lead them (and us) astray on fantastical tangents.
At best, Yockey’s new play makes an intriguing companion piece to his “Octopus.” At worst, the one is simply derivative of the other. There, two apparently faithful gay couples recklessly tempted fate by engaging in a casual night of unprotected group sex, whereupon they eventually came face to face with a mythical sea creature of symbolic significance.
Here, ex-lovers Ben (Clifton Guterman) and Jack (the terrific Brian Crawford) are temporarily sharing an apartment in the “dark forest” of an unnamed big city. While Ben whines and warns him against “looking for trouble,” Jack seems ready to move on and heads off to “hunt” for a one-night stand, which he finds in the form of a big bad Wolf (Joe Sykes, with no short supply of animal magnetism).
Yockey’s Narrator (a chirpy Kate Donadio) tells us from the outset that this isn’t going to be a pretty story. It’s fashioned as an exceedingly grim modern-day fairy tale, but without the inherent burden of offering any “moral” or “lessons learned.” When she isn’t whispering ominous nothings in Ben’s ear, she controls a lot of the drama from the sidelines, freezing the action or changing the scene with a flick of her wrist or a clap of her hands.
Like all of those other Yockey plays, “Wolves” runs in 70 or 80 minutes without intermission and, once again, there’s a sense that he could’ve invested more time and effort by going further and digging deeper into its psychological aspects. Guterman delivers a series of articulate monologues, but Yockey doesn’t provide much transition. From one to the next, Ben is a clinging nag and then torn by legitimate emotions and finally downright deranged.
As strikingly mounted by Foulger (with haunting assists from Ben Tilley’s lighting and Dan Bauman’s sound design), “Wolves” is definitely worth a look. But the script itself isn’t Yockey’s most original work, inadvertently confirming what the Narrator observes to us early on — sometimes, the greater your expectations, the bigger your disappointment.
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