Down on the Farm

Scott Pask's perfectly rendered farmhouse kitchen in Pig Farm transports us smack into the center of the anguished world of pig farming, where Tom (a believably burly John Ellison Conlee) struggles to raise his massive herd with G-men from the Environmental Protection Agency breathing down his neck. Though Tom's herd of pigs produces more waste than he can manage, he is forbidden from disposing of it the only way he knows how—by dumping it in the river. From the outset, the plot seems promising: privately owned farms, whose organic goods are so in vogue at the moment, are pitted against a government bureaucracy charged with keeping the environment clean. But Pig Farm fails to respect its central characters enough to live up to its potential. The play seems to want us well-fed city folk to laugh at these people, not with them, as they hoot and holler, knee-deep in their own mess.

Adding to the supposed hilarity, the dialogue sounds like the lyrics a drunken nanny would sing or silly rhymes Dr. Seuss might pen. Tom's just dying to make the government happy so it will lay off him for a while, but he can't get a moment's rest because his wife, Tina (Katie Finneran), wants to make a baby. Between them, bits of dialogue repeat and repeat, again cluing us in to the sameness of life on the farm.

Onomatopoeia and alliteration abound: most often, the sibilant "s" (screeching, squirling, snurfling) is punctuated by the hard phonetic stops of "t's": Tina, Teddy, Tom, and Tim. If the actors hadn't been directed to play each scene for laughs, perhaps the rhythms and inflections might have acquired a Pinteresque simplicity, but as is, they sound like staged folksiness.

Tim, the juvenile delinquent free on a work release and in the couple's care, has been entrusted to tally the pigs and is just dying to be taken seriously. When he and Tina get frisky after another of Tom's drunken rages, Tim is sure that he's a man and that whatever he feels for Tina must be love. Tim wants to escape with Tina to the open road, a place as romantic and unreal as Shangri-la, but Tina, weary and still in love with her basically good husband, knows better. Tim is a good boy, she says maternally, though not enough of a man to replace the one she's already got.

The farmhouse is an anxious place, and the characters are frenzied much of the time, often delivering lines at a rapid, spitfire pace and at full scream. Finneran often strains uncomfortably, her voice ill at ease with yelling. Logan Marshall-Green, the poorly cast Tim, is not only much too physically mature to play a nearly 18-year-old delinquent but sacrifices any kind of pathos his character might express for cheap laughs.

The only one who can totally get away with his quirkier-than-real-life antics is Denis O'Hare, who plays the wiseass EPA agent, Teddy. Full of odd inflections and a wonderfully overdrawn tendency to flash his gun, Teddy is the smarmy G-man who makes Tom play nice. With a scheme or three up his sleeve, Teddy is the bad face of a presumably right-minded agency, and he raises the show's entertainment value immensely.

That said, one actor cannot keep an entire production afloat; although the players are mostly able, playwright Greg Kotis, who scored big with Urinetown, doesn't work hard enough to make us invest in them. Pig Farm ends up being the kind of play you write if you don't actually know any farmers; their struggles to bring food to the none-too-thankful tables of America can be played for cheap laughs because they are so far outside our sphere of empathy. The production is billed as a dark comedy, but most of the time it ends up being slapstick.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post