Two years ago, Lia Romeo declared herself a clever, unpredictable playwright when her “Green Whales” received its world premiere at the Unicorn Theatre. It was an absurdist comedy constructed around a few serious real-world issues and had a refreshing philosophical bent.
Her new play, “Hungry,” isn’t the equal of “Green Whales,” which is not to say it suffers for want of imagination. But there’s a fine line between absurdism in service to a higher artistic goal and absurdism for its own sake. In “Hungry,” Romeo isn’t aiming very high, and when she misses the mark, the quirky sense of humor of “Green Whales” haunts this show like a nostalgic memory. There’s relatively little philosophy in this play, and much of the humor is pinned to visual gags.
The Unicorn production, directed by Cynthia Levin, features impressive design elements and a talented cast, and it’s fair to say the actors and the craftspeople who worked on this show got the most out of the material.
Dina Thomas plays Amy, a teenager obsessed with weight loss, and delivers a memorable comic performance, precise and unpredictable. But she’s not alone. Chioma Anyanwu, decked out in a preposterous blond wig, offers a smartly conceived turn in a role that’s less character than attitude. Katie Gilchrist, as Amy’s mom, is quite good as an amusingly drawn variation of a middle-class parent who gets a clue after it’s too late. Perhaps most remarkable of all is Jeff Smith, who crafts a singular comic performance without a single line of dialogue. As a Minotaur who may or may not be a collective hallucination, Smith conveys the persona of a savage innocent with a fair amount of charm and wit.
The plot depicts Amy stressing about the upcoming dance team auditions. She must lose weight if she hopes to make the cut, so her condescending, popular and sexually active pal Bianca helps her out by sharing some diet pills smuggled in from Mexico. Only after popping her first pill does the Minotaur appear at Amy’s window. While she’s horrified at first, she eventually invites him into her bedroom, where he wins her over with his seeming docility.
Eventually he’s discovered by Amy’s mom, who decides to domesticate him, and before long Amy and Katharine and the Minotaur are sitting down to family dinners in which the two humans try to teach the creature basic etiquette. He likes roast beef, but what he really likes to eat is people, and he becomes so attached to Amy that he decides to dispatch anyone who he thinks has wronged or insulted her.
The costumes, designed by Jon Fulton Adams, are a succession of clever visual jokes, and the angular, disorienting scenic design — reminiscent of a carnival fun house — is the work of Laura L. Burkhart. Alex Perry’s lighting aids the creative scene transitions.
The play is performed in about 75 minutes without an intermission, but even with such an economical running time the material feels thin. Ultimately, the play — as clever as it is in bursts — doesn’t really add up to much. “Hungry,” after all is said and done, plays a bit like an R-rated after-school special. That’s a funny idea. But that’s all it is.