Has there ever before been such a touching love scene between poultry? A young rooster named Odysseus Rex, played by Bobby Moreno like an angry punk with a knife, is introduced to Lucky Lady (Megan Tusing), a hen genetically engineered by McDonald’s to be twice her normal weight, and so virtually unable to stand. At first they don’t get along. He’s all…well…cocky. She behaves in a way that explains where the phrase “hen-pecked” comes from. But swiftly she is able to reach inside his chest and remove the anger he says is there, shaped like an anvil. They kiss, like the French (like birds!), cheek to cheek, and snuggle.
It is a funny and wonderfully acted scene in Eric Dufault’s clever play “Year of the Rooster,” which is running once again at the Ensemble Studio Theater, this time through February 1. Such fowl doings make up for the frequently foul-mouthed brutality of the human characters.
Gil Pepper (a brave Thomas Lyons) is a put-upon schlemiel, taunted by Philipa, his teenage co-worker at McDonalds (Tusing again), belittled by his mother Lou (Delphia Harrington) and outright abused by the town’s rich tyrant Dickie Thimble, a delectably despicable good ol boy as portrayed by Denny Dale Bess. Even Gil’s name-tag mocks him; it is misspelled as “Girl.” But things will change, he is sure, once he proves his worth through his fighting rooster, whom he’s been training to fight since it was hatched eight months ago, and whom he affectionately nicknames Odie. That Gil wears an eye-patch from an encounter with a previous cock is an indication that he might not get what he wants even if Odie wins his first fight, as is Gil’s run-down of his track record. “the first cock we had was Rosco, total scrub…Chance Encounter, maimed; Crazy Horse, crushed; Picklehead, ran over by the car…Say Grace, crippled; Fleet Week, useless; Free Lunch, eaten by a dog.”
There is some terrific writing in “Year of the Rooster,” first-rate acting, spot-on staging by director John Giampietro, and the feel of being in on the discovery of two major emerging talents – playwright Eric Dufault and actor Bobby Moreno.
There is, however, one aspect of “Year of the Rooster” that makes it tough to embrace completely. It’s not the bleak world-view – many of the world’s greatest dramatists share such scant hope – nor the relentless cussing – a battle lost decades ago – nor the apparently Southern white-trash setting. But we too often feel forced to share in the characters’ ridicule of each other. The audience feels encouraged to laugh at Philipa, the employee of McDonald’s, for saying that her greatest dream is someday to visit Disney World — perhaps a modern-day equivalent of Lenny’s wanting to tend the rabbits in Of Mice and Men. But John Steinbeck offered not a hint of condescension towards Lenny for expressing this sadly simple dream, and audiences are not encouraged to laugh at it. If only “Year of the Rooster” treated its human characters with as much affection and understanding as it has for Odie, surely the most complex and fully realized fowl on any New York stage.