'Food for Fish' a smart but frustrating comedy at Essential Theatre

Flawed and frustrating, especially toward the end, it's also one smart play.

Although Chekhov's characters lived in the Russian country and pined for Moscow, these girls live in New York, longing for New Jersey. And they're keeping their dead father's body in the house, despite odor issues. These are just a few of the many quirks that serve as complex metaphors while feeding Szymkowicz's dark, droll dialogue.

The characters have a bleak view of life's purpose and perpetually long for love, safety and, of course, New Jersey. Another recurring theme is the difficulty of living up to gender expectations, which this production emphasizes by casting women in all of but one of the male roles, and a man, Charles Swint, as one of the sisters. Swint's character, Barbara, is an agoraphobic who hasn't left the house in seven years. And there are problems in the bedroom with her husband, Dexter, played by Sarah Falkenburg Wallace.

Like all the cross-dressing members of the cast, Swint and Wallace are intentionally artificial. But Swint, who has an uncanny feel for his character, often makes us suspend awareness of his sex. He wears little makeup and overcomes a bad wig with facial gestures and expertly modulated voice.

Perhaps director Peter Hardy, the company's artistic director, sensed that bad male-to-female drag is old hat, but not the reverse. So he has made his women-playing-men less convincing, and Wallace never lets us forget that Dexter is really a "she." Just to make sure, her makeup emphasizes her feminine face and eyes, and she wears a ridiculous fake mustache.

Alice, played by Eve Krueger, dates a new man each night as part of her research (she's trying to isolate the gene that causes romance), and she takes DNA, urine and blood samples from each date. On one level she is trying to find a mate through this process, but on another, she is deeply pessimistic. She's also in love with Dexter.

Krueger's Alice is believable and a natural for Szymowicz's dry patter, but the role itself is sometimes an awkward fit for the play. The third sister, Sylvia, is a journalist. Desperate to make a career break, she goes out in search of the latest tabloid sensation, a "serial kisser" who is stalking Manhattan and kissing strangers on the street. Instead, she falls in love and into a downward spiral. Kate Graham makes the most of this complicated role.

But it is the kisser, Bobbie, who makes this play work, especially as played by Brent Nicholas Rose. His portrayal is sensitive and charismatic, with just the right surreal touch. Although he is the only man playing a man, Rose is given an androgynous face. He comes off as a cross between Pee-wee Herman and Macaulay Culkin, a look that he completely inhabits.

In addition to his kissing, Bobbie writes pages of prose that he throws into the Hudson River and spends time staring into the barrel of a loaded gun. He serves as the occasional narrator and foil for Szymkowicz, arguing with his characters about their lines.

"Food for Fish" falls apart when Szymkowicz veers from his abstract, surreal landscape and attempts to tie everything together at the end. Still, it's a wild, strange trip, full of black humor, and something to really challenge the mind.

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