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The authenticity of Alexis Baigue's performance as the tortured young artist at the center of "Stupid F***ing Bird" is the pole that makes the clever merry-go-round of this play go, well, round.
Aaron Posner's expletive-laced script, which the playwright offers as a riff on Anton Chekhov's "The Seagull," is awfully proud of its convention-breaking form. With the wrong cast, this clever script (playing in a regional premiere at Salt Lake Acting Company) could go horribly, horribly wrong.
At the center of the play there's Baigue, who plays Con, the wannabe writer son of a prima donna, Emma (Nell Gwynn). The actor never winks ironically or otherwise undercuts his character's angst. He's well-served by the physical nod to Russian playwright Chekhov, whose portrait hangs on the wall of the stage.
The story begins when Con debuts his new work "a site-specific performance event" at his family's home and costumes Nina (Anne Louise Brings) in his mother's dress. That's the moment when theatergoers begin to understand just what kind of family story is unfolding.
"Here. We. Are," Nina pronounces as part of Con's script that aims to upend the theatrical traditions of his mother's generation, and it's an important moment in a play that throws comedic narrative firecrackers at the same time it questions the art of storytelling.
These characters know they are in a play that Con is writing, which is why Baigue's authentic performance is so important. The actor appears relaxed and genuine whenever he directly addresses theatergoers, such as when he requests advice for winning back Nina's love, after she falls for Trig (Terrence Goodman), the famous writer who is Con's mother's lover.
This production excels at serving up Posner's self-aware comedic angst: the characters talking about the play they're in, this "new form of art" unfolding in an established theater, all while aiming to find meaning in capital-A Art.
Less successful are the scenes that deal Chekhovian cards, such as Nina's seduction of Trig, which Goodman plays as ironic rather than dangerous, as well as offstage shootings, which don't deliver a punch to theatergoers' collective gut. In these scenes, director William Missouri Downs hasn't helped the actors mine the tragedy beneath their characters' vanity.
One scene where Baigue deliciously plays the extended comedy of his character's depression is when he folds himself up on his mother's stove and makes an elaborate alcoholic smoothie in a bright red blender.
Baigue, as the story's Hamlet character, is particularly fine in his scenes with Nina, a young ingénue played with beautiful grace by Brings. She offers just the right touch of Ophelia-like madness to late scenes after she's suffered her own tragedy.
Gwynn's blood-red manicure serves as an excellent talisman for her character, and the actor's monologues are mesmerizing in how they convey Emma's vanity. As Con says of his mother: "Dye and Botox can't make me go away. The math of me."
The play's second mostly unrequited love story is between Con's "odd friend," Dev (Justin Ivie), and Mash (Latoya Cameron), who is completely in love with Con, even if he can't see her. Ivie disappears into his role with pitch-perfect affectations, while Cameron plays her character with the flat tone of a depressive Millennial. "Don't judge," she commands again and again.
Cameron's emo-style original ukulele numbers are charming, and Ivie and Cameron's characters defrost just the right amount in the play's final act. Morgan Lund as Sorn, Emma's doctor brother, comments on the action with important observational distance. Technically, the show's designers Thomas George's set, James M. Craig's lighting, Erin M. West's costumes and Jessica Greenberg's sound all beautifully serve the story.
For all its self-awareness, "Stupid F***ing Bird" has rich fun while making questions about life and art ring with fresh urgency, thanks to a cast that's up to the challenge.
Don't judge: 'Stupid F***ing Bird'
The cast's authentic performances, led by Alex Baigue's tortured young artist, make this Chekhovian riff more than just another potty-mouthed attempt to flip the theatrical bird.
When • Reviewed Friday, April 8; continues Wednesday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday 1 and 6 p.m., through May 1; additional shows Tuesdays, April 19 and 26, 7:30 p.m.; and Saturdays, April 23 and 30, 2 p.m.
Where • Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $15-$42, depending on performance (student, senior and 30 & under discounts); 801-363-7522 or saltlakeactingcompany.org
Running time • Two and a half hours, including two intermissions