One of the most compelling of the current crop of playwrights is Barret O'Brien. So far, I have seen two facets of O'Brien the playwright: The Stand-Ins and Midnight in the Marigny were well-crafted pieces with a fresh comic take on contemporary youth. Midnight in the Marigny, which garnered three Big Easy nominations, was a high point of local theater. More recently, O'Brien has shown us his more experimental side. He has teamed up with Measle Bumpkin, a troupe of puppeteers as whimsical and inventive as its name. The collaboration has resulted in two shows: last year's freeform fantasia Hardware and their current outing at Southern Rep, Licking the Bowl. O'Brien, as usual, directed and acts in the show.
The story line of Licking the Bowl is quite simple. There is a group of young men who live at, or crash at, or just hang out in an apartment whose rent is paid by a couple, Richard and Brandy. The apartment is a like a "now" version of La Boheme -- that is to say, a trough of low-rent, artsy squalor (since the American addition to the great bohemian tradition seems to be a lopping off of the high end of style and a piling on of the tawdry low-end mess and chaos factor).
Brandy (the attractive and unfailingly poised Ashley Nolan) is an aspiring poet. She works at a chain coffee shop. Richard (O'Brien) is an aspiring songwriter. He works in the souvenir shop of a chain theme restaurant called Planet Rock. He hates it. In fact, it drives him to distraction.
The gang of friends (Steve Zissis, Arthur Mintz, Bryan Spitzfaden and Jacques Duffourc) are puppeteers who perform on Jackson Square. They are doing a marvelous puppet fable called The Night Ocean about a young boy who is so consumed by his desire to be a pirate that he ignores and loses his dearest companion, a red bird.
One day Richard quits his job in a fury and tries to convince Brandy they should cut out immediately for New Zealand. Why? He saw a boat with the words "New Zealand" written on its side. A sign. An omen.
But simultaneously, the group of friends has decided to imitate Charlie Parker, the great jazz saxophonist, who -- after a humiliating attempt to jam with a band -- locked himself in a woodshed for a year to hone his skills. They will lock themselves in the apartment and not leave until their puppet opus reaches its perfect, finished form.
What follows is a raucous degeneration in which the electricity, telephone, food and most importantly, beer run out, while the young men work on the puppet show -- or get sidetracked by various hijinks, such as turning into gibbons.
Meanwhile, sensitive, reasonable, long-suffering Brandy cuts out. Has Richard, like the boy in the puppet show, lost his red bird because of his obsessive artistic ambition?
In all of this, a great archetype looms invisibly off stage. For Richard, Brandy and the puppet troupe are acting out some phantasmal version of Peter Pan, Wendy and the lost boys (right down to the dirty socks). There is even a pirate captain summoned up by this spiritual magnetism, the comic villain Berman Klotsky, who loads so much treasure on his galleon that he has to throw his crew and his wife overboard to keep from sinking. Never has it been clearer why J. M. Barry made his lost boys 10 years old rather than 20 or located his Neverland safely beyond the clouds and the moon.
That being said, there is a great deal of magic and amusement to be had -- as is always the case when this talented group gets together. The puppets (by Jacques Duffourc and Arthur Mintz) are an irresistible mixture of the sophisticated and the primitive. The lost boys are, more often than not, winsome scamps and good company. And O'Brien brings such genuineness to Richard's spiritual awakening that it becomes surprisingly moving. There are many gems in Licking the Bowl, but a good deal of ore as well.