BY ELISE MARENSON
A man appears on stage dressed as a rooster. He yells something I didn’t quite understand. How am I going to sit through this anthropomorphic piece? Then theatrical magic begins. I am in a McDonalds in Oklahoma, so real that I forget I just left the New York subway. The brilliantly simple set makes me a fly on the wall.
Gil Pepper works the counter at McDonalds. He steals condiments for his widowed mother with whom he lives. Like Chance Wayne and Terry Malloy, Gil Pepper wants to be somebody. He is grooming his rooster, Odysseus Rex (nickname “Ody”) for a championship cock fight against his nemesis, driven promoter Dickie Thimble. Dickie owns the second largest beef jerky plant in the state. They talk about their roosters, as if they were million dollar race horses.
Ody’s brutal training consists of periodic meal deprivation, juicing, and turns in the spin cycle of the dryer. Ody has been pushed so hard that he clawed Gil’s eye, forcing him to wear an eye patch. He has so much anger inside that it feels like an anvil weighs on his heart.
Gil’s sassy manager at McDonalds has her goals, too. She aims to manage every McDonalds in the whole world. Her brass ring is a stay at Walt Disney World Resort. She questions Gil’s manhood, telling him that she heard he has a dick the size of a mini golf pencil.
The play is rich in hilarious one-liners. But it is no sitcom, and the characters aren’t caricatures. Playwright Eric Dufault manages a delicate balance with his wacky humor, yet making us care about and feel for these people. Imagine that Tennessee Williams, Arthur Kopit, Dr. Seuss, and Larry David got together to write this piece.
The only character who isn’t a go-getter is Gil Pepper’s mom. Mom sits with her motionless dog on her lap, repeatedly wondering if he is dead. Mom was satisfied with her hairdressing career, without beauty school, and disapproves of her son’s cockfighting road to success. And of course, she rains on his parade.
The second act is less focused than the first. It meanders a bit with Gil’s celebrity interview and a blind date for Ody with a chicken. (Spoiler alert) Mr. Dufault pulls us in again with Gil’s determination to get back in the fray after a setback.
Year of the Rooster is an American story. We are a nation of dreamers, however misguided, and these characters embody that striving for the big time. This is a production where top notch actors, perfectly cast, and flawless directing enhance truthful, well crafted writing. Mr. Dufault is a young playwright, an original voice from whom we will hear for many years to come. If the subject of cockfighting turns you off, don’t let it dissuade you from seeing Year of the Rooster. The rooster is a person, too.
YEAR OF THE ROOSTER – By Eric Dufault; directed by John Giampietro
WITH: Denny Dale Bess (Dickie Thimble), Delphi Harrington (Lou Pepper), Thomas Lyons (Gil Pepper), Bobby Moreno (Odysseus Rex), Megan Tusing (Philipa).
Scenic Designer, Alexis Distler; Associate Scenic Designer, Neslihan Arsian; Costume Designer, Sydney Maresca; Lighting Designer, Greg MacPherson; Sound Designer, Shane Rettig; Fight Director, Qui Nguyen; Production Stage Manager, Eileen Lalley; Technical Director, Steven Brenman; Assistant Stage Manager, Samantha Honeycutt; Master Electrician, Joe Skowronski; Properties Master, Kate Lundell; Wardrobe Supervisor, Jerilyn Datolli; Assistant Wardrobe Supervisor, Aubrey Clinedinst; Press Representative, Bruce Cohen; Graphic Design, Noah Scalin; Production Photographer, Russ Kuhner; Sound Tech, Aiden Meyer; Run Crew, Tyche Xu, Bobby Peatman; House Manager, Sean Huddlestan. Presented by Ensemble Studio Theatre, William Carden, Artistic Director; Paul Alexander Slee, Executive Director; Graeme Gillis, R.J. Tolan, EST/Youngblood Artistic Directors. At the Ensemble Studio Theatre, 549 West 52nd Street, Manhattan, (212) 247.4982, ensemblestudiotheatre.org. Through November 24. Running time: 2 hours.