When Constance Congdon's play Tales of the Lost Formicans was first produced, at the Humana Festival in 1989, it introduced American audiences to a strange new planet. The play's revival, directed by Brett Maughan for the theater company Nicu's Spoon, takes New Yorkers on a funny, tragic, and insightful return voyage to Congdon's otherworld. On this terra incognita, "wheeled sarcophagi" that look strangely like cars "are used to carry the spirits to the next world"; masturbation is a religious ritual; and the "wobble" of domestic furniture is due to "climate change or some other antropic reality."
However, the anthropologists examining the mystery planet are space aliens, and their brave new world is earth: specifically, the suburbs of the United States. While newly divorced mother Cathy struggles to keep her family together despite her son's teenage rebellion, her father's descent into the oblivion of Alzheimer's disease, and her own loneliness, the aliens, too, try to make sense of her life. Finally, there's the neighborhood conspiracy theorist, who has an explanation for everything except his desire for Cathy.
Formicans is a brilliant play. The language that Congdon invents for her alien characters is specific and often hilarious, full of the kinds of insights that come from refusing to look at anything in the usual way. "Offspring are born without wheels and must acquire their own," observe the aliens, plopped down near skateboarding kids and a Corvette. The characterization of the humans is realistic, often painfully so. When Cathy's father, once a brilliant mechanist, fixes the aliens' equipment, only to find his memory of the incident wiped out by them, Congdon reveals what life must seem like to an Alzheimer's sufferer.
Several strong actors carry this production. The versatile Brian J. Coffey makes Cathy's father appear confused and lucid, gentle and frightening, as occasion demands. Lindsay Goranson provides extra comic relief as Cathy's daffy best friend. As the paranoid yet empathetic neighbor, Michael Hartney nearly steals the show. His crystal-clear physical acting and expressive face make this character an archetype rather than a stock type. As the Head Alien, Jovinna Chan delivers her conclusions in a robotic deadpan with just enough evident confusion to avoid becoming monotonous.
The cast is not uniformly strong, however. Rebecca Challis, as Cathy, struggles to play a character who is much older than her playing age. I found her scenes with her parents more convincing than those with her son, Eric (Nico Phillips). Although listed in the program as a "theatrical guru," Phillips lacks the subtle and three-dimensional acting that his role requires. In the first act, Phillips shouts most of his lines with little expression, making Eric appear a simple bully, not a troubled young man whose aggression masks his vulnerability and fear. In a scene in the second act in which Eric, sleeping rough in an inhospitable city, is confronted by a cop, it did not seem as if the boy was afraid.
The aliens' costumes are simply yet boldly designed by Rien Schlecht, in streamlined black with white wraparound shades. The set, by Maughan and S. Barton-Farcas, is less effective. A hollow wooden box represented a desk, bar, Corvette, and other objects and locations. Its underside was hollow and unfinished, and it is moved or turned throughout the play. This made scene changes lengthy, slowing down the play's momentum. Several times, actors noisily moved this wooden monolith while other actors were talking, making it hard to hear the dialogue or pay attention to the action.
In sum, this production of Formicans has some kinks that need working out, but the play is a modern masterpiece, generally well acted here. Its small, odd, funny, and haunting world is a place well worth visiting.