- OnStage Los Angeles Critic
When I first heard about The Armadillo Necktie, a world premiere play by Gus Krieger currently being presented by The Group Rep in North Hollywood, I was most intrigued by what the title might be referring to. I will say, the answer did not disappoint, and, much like the play as a whole, the answer was more brutal than you would expect.
Set near the border of Iraq and Iran sometime in the mid-2000s, The Armadillo Necktie tells the story of five characters who are brought together by rather insane circumstances. The titular Colonel Ulysses Simpson Armadillo (understudy Larry Eisenberg at the performance attended, Bert Emmett usually) is an old, eccentric, violent man who has grown notorious for refusing to return home to the United States until he tracks down and enacts revenge on the insurgents who killed his wife years ago. His partner-in-crime slash babysitter is Buckley Dunham (Matt Calloway), an officer who was initially sent to force Armadillo’s return, but inevitably grew fond of him. Their usually monotonous lives are disrupted one day when a New York Times reporter, Madeline (Jennifer Laks) and her mysterious photographer, Bruce (Morgan Lauff) stumble upon their bunker. The situation is even further complicated by the arrival of a local woman, Aminah (Shanti Ashanti) who is convinced Colonel Armadillo is the only one who can help her find her missing brother, and is willing to tell him whatever he wants to hear to ensure he does.
This play is a very dark comedy, and given the severity of the situation, its humor is both welcome and occasionally jarring. For the most part, the characters all get fully realized backstories and motivations, and the performances were first rate. The standout was absolutely Eisenberg as Armadillo—he had the audience laughing throughout, and truly embodied a very out-there character that could have easily become merely cartoonish in lesser hands. Calloway was also very effective as Buckley, carrying a lengthy early sequence with great comedic timing and charming magnetism.
Surprisingly, this was my first time at the Lonny Chapman Theatre, which is a true gem of a space. Drina Durazo’s direction made the most of the clever set, which was just big enough to accommodate the often complicated action. The plot has many twists and reveals—perhaps too many, as I definitely felt the second act in particular overstayed its welcome, yet still failed to build to an ending as climactic as I was expecting. There were a couple of eleventh hour plot twists that felt unmotivated and perplexing, particularly one moment between Armadillo and Madeline. Strange choices regarding passage of time also required a bit too much suspension of disbelief, and while fun, Armadillo’s lengthy, rambling speeches took up a lot of time and occasionally became a drag. I would be curious to see what this play could look like in a more concise 90 minutes, rather than the two and a half hours (including intermission) it currently runs—without some of the more extraneous dialogue, the action could certainly fit, and even benefit from happening in a more concise way.
If you find theatrical gunfire startling, this is probably not the play for you—there is a lot of violence and even more references to violence. Ultimately, solid performances and memorable characters help balance out the somewhat clunky plot, and the inevitable political undertones are pretty savvily interwoven and never overwhelming.
The Armadillo Necktie runs at the Lonny Chapman Theatre (10900 Burbank Blvd, North Hollywood) through July 31st with three performance a week—Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at www.thegrouprep.com.