If you haven’t been to the Detroit Repertory Theatre yet, now would be a good time. Located in a sleepy part of town by the Lodge and Davison freeways on the city’s west side, the Rep is one of those uniquely Detroit institutions, boasting a cozy environment with a great old-timey bar and a friendly audience of regulars. L.A.-based writer and director Tom Baum’s brainy comedy Endangered Species makes its world premiere at the Rep, and serves as good excuse as any to check out the theater.
Loosely based on the life of philosopher Peter Singer (whose book Animal Liberation is considered a cornerstone of the animal rights movement), Endangered Species tells a story of four characters whose paths quickly become intertwined despite their strongly oppositional convictions. Leon (played by Wayne David Parker) is a philosophy professor who teaches a class about bioethics, and constantly rattles off axioms about the sanctity of animals. His odd-couple wife is the suffocatingly doting Theona (Janeé Ann Smith), a bigshot at an animal-testing firm who’s convinced her husband is going senile. Despite his belief in the power of philosophy to reveal the truth, Leon plays along with his wife’s incorrect diagnosis — perhaps just to get her out of his hair — while at the same time turning a blind eye to her morally questionable animal experiments. Meanwhile, Theona pushes Leon to complete his memoir, and doesn’t seem to be quite as distracted as he is about their beloved dog Winnie, who is at the vet.
Enter Bailey (Victoria Army), a young, seemingly collegiate woman Leon reasons must be answering an ad Theona placed for an assistant to help him finish his memoir. When he realizes Bailey is actually a prostitute who arrived at the wrong address, he again finds himself playing along with something he knows is not true by manipulating Bailey into believing that Theona is dead. By the time Leon’s former pupil Justin shows up and reveals that his old prof inspired him to form the PETA-esque animal rights movement that’s plotting a raid on Theona’s animal-testing firm, we officially have one twisted pretzel of a plot (never mind that Justin insists he knows Bailey from somewhere). The characters, especially Leon, spend plenty of time talking the talk, and are soon faced with having to decide if they can walk the walk. As Leon muses, it is the philosopher’s duty to become a parody of himself, to follow his arguments to their logical conclusion — even if that puts them at odds with their loved ones.
Despite the philosophical subject matter, which quotes Freud, Darwin, Descartes, Heidegger, et al., Endangered Species is funny, while sporting an understated humor. When Theona asks the erectile-dysfunctional Leon how long he’s been awake following his secret romp with Bailey, Parker delivers a deadpan “Up for hours and hours” with great comedic effect. Most of the humor involves the dramatic irony stemming from Leon’s lying, even as he preaches philosophical truth. It’s not side-splitting humor, although a fake, blood-soaked stuffed Easter Bunny posing as one of Theona’s dead lab rabbits is so shitty that it winds up being one of the play’s funniest gags, simply because of the sheer juxtaposition amid the otherwise realistic and minimal set and costume designs.
Playwright Tom Baum even flew in for the premiere of the play last Thursday night — he says he pitched it cold and was surprised that the Detroit Rep picked it up, and delighted with the final production. Whether the play can sustain a life of its own after its run is anyone’s guess, but you can make up your own mind at the Rep.
Performances are 8:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 3 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Sundays. Endangered Species runs through June 22 at the Detroit Repertory Theatre, 13103 Woodrow Wilson, Detroit. Tickets are $17 advance, $20 at the door. Call 313-868-1347 or see detroitreptheatre.com for more information.