BOTTOM LINE: This is a rollickingly good play, which ought simply to be enjoyed as a fun experience, rather than being over-analyzed, over-interpreted or pondered upon.
Lola-Lola is well-written, well-directed, well-acted and a load of fun. John (Christopher Sutton) is a full professor of anthropology at a conservative Christian college and a nationally recognized expert on “the missing link” (or, rather, the apparent absence thereof). By the standards of his university, he is relatively liberal –- that is, he accepts the general validity of the theory of evolution as it relates to all species other than man –- but he refuses to believe that man, himself, descended from any ape-like ancestor, emphasizing the fact that “no fossil link” between man and the great apes has ever been found.
John’s wife, Mary (Leanne Barrineau) seems to share John’s general convictions on the subject of evolution and is herself a teacher of elementary school students. She is also in the throes of an extra-marital affair with Ted (Colin McFadden), who is John’s best friend and a second-rate associate professor of anthropology at the university himself. When Mary returns from a trip to Africa, she brings a pet chimpanzee named Lola-Lola (Melissa Sussman) with her. And, as it turns out, the chimpanzee is not only highly intelligent and insightful but falls in love with John who ends up reciprocating her feelings.
Superficially, at least, the play might appear to deal (at least metaphorically) with a whole host of “big” issues including nature vs. nurture, animal rights, the advantages (or disadvantages) of assimilation vs. the retention of one’s historic ethnic identity, speciesism, interracial marriage, same sex marriage, polygamy, homosexuality, and on and on. Assuredly, there will be those both on the left and on the right with such intellectual, religious, political or philosophical pretensions that they will focus all their attention on just those sorts of metaphorical allusions. The liberals and secularists among them surely will recognize in this play the obvious ignorance of the right in its denial of the self-evident truth of evolution while the religious right is certain to discover ample evidence of the left’s narrow-mindedness in its refusal even to allow an investigation into intelligent design’s alternative explanation to evolutionary theory. Animal rights advocates will focus on the mistreatment of Lola-Lola and will see in her the virtual evolution of a chimpanzee into a “woman” under the proper environmental conditions. Religious fundamentalists will disapprove of Ted and Mary’s extra-marital affair but will see it as inconsequential in comparison to John’s fornicating with a chimpanzee; secularist ethical relativists might consider John’s behavior no more reprehensible than Mary’s.
But if one focuses on issues of that sort, one will run the risk of failing to see the forest for the trees. This really is not a very deep nor intellectual production, and it's much more enjoyable if seen as the story it aims to tell. None of the play's characters present any intellectually rigorous arguments in support of any religious, political or philosophical positions and I don’t see that as an oversight or shortcoming on the playwright’s part. On the contrary, I think that the playwright, Peter Michalos, just wanted to create an entertaining work and he certainly succeeded at that.
All five of the play’s actors are wonderful in their respective roles: Christopher Sutton as John, the renowned but conflicted anthropologist who ends up in the sack with a chimpanzee; Leanne Barrineau as Mary, the shallow, unfaithful wife; Colin McFadden as Ted, John’s disloyal friend, Mary’s lover and a second-rate intellect; Dennis Z. Gagomiros in multiple comic roles, all of which he plays to perfection; and, best of all, Melissa Sussman as Lola-Lola, a chimpanzee in love with a human, on the cusp of becoming human herself, and yet still maintaining her chimpanzee-ness. Her performance alone was worth the price of admission.
(LOLA-LOLA plays at The Living Theatre, 21 Clinton Street, through August 27, 2011. Remaining performance is Saturday, August 27th at 4:45PM. Tickets are $15 and are available at fringenyc.org. For more show info visit PeterMichalos.com. For more info about FringeNYC visit fringnyc.org.)