2005_09_arts_pastoralia.jpg Gothamist is always happy to see George Saunders’ name in the table of contents when we pick up the New Yorker or Harpers, so we were definitely keen to see Yehuda Duenyas’ stage adaptation of the short story Pastoralia, playing now at PS 122. We weren’t disappointed. The actors bring Saunders’ partly hilarious, partly sorrowful fable to life to an extent you might not think possible just by reading the story; and while it might be off-off-Broadway, where certain elements of a production are sometimes necessarily neglected for lack of space or money, everything about this show, beginning with the fantastic set by Michael Casselli, work to draw you into the world Saunders created in his distinctive style, which Duenyas translates faithfully to stage.

Briefly, the idea is this: Ed (Ryan Bronz) and Janet (Aimee McCormick) work as pretend cave people in an amusement park (called Pastoralia) where people can learn about history; they wear gnarly long wigs, fake bad teeth, are covered in filth, and aren’t supposed to talk in anything but gibberish that’s supposed to be early human speech. Ed is a conscientious worker who follows this rule uncomplainingly, but Janet is sick of the job and doesn’t see the point of keeping up the act, since few people visit Pastoralia (think the televangelist Bakkers’ Heritage USA park, which is falling into ruins). Unfortunately for her, there are people watching from afar – the park managers, who don’t appreciate her going out of character and want to fire her. One would think Janet would have quit by this point anyway, but the unspoken but very clear background dynamic throughout the play is the dismal shape of the local economy, which means neither she nor Ed really has an alternative for income, and both also have families that desperately need that money.

Sounds like comedy gold, right? But really, despite some very real human tragedies going on, Pastoralia is often funny – probably because Saunders doesn’t focus on those tragedies, and Duenyas treats them almost as subtly in the adaptation. You do really feel for these people – Ed and Janet might be in an absurd situation, and Marty (Richard Ferrone), who runs a convenience store that caters to the park employees, might be slightly nutso, but they’re easy to understand. McCormick in particular makes Janet immensely sympathetic, from the start of her defiance to her total deflation when her son Bradley (Jesse Hawley) stops by to beg for money after getting kicked out of rehab. But Saunders doesn't tug at the heartstrings too strongly, and the play's short scenes are just right to keep things rolling along so that while you engage with the characters, you don’t get bogged down by them, which would have undermined the playful, subversive side of the story.

Pastoralia is supposed to take place in the very near future, which Gothamist interprets to mean closer to tomorrow than anything like years from now, because despite the gestures at making it all seem a bit dystopic and alien, it really highlights a mood that feels quite current. The way Saunders, and the actors in turn, use language is probably the key to this: everyone is talking on different wavelengths and no one is connecting. Janet and Ed, of course, spend most of their conversation either in gibberish or with Janet talking in English and Ed not being able to respond because of his dedication to his job; then there are the kids in the play, both Bradley and Marty’s cute son Kevin (Dmitri Friedenberg), who like most kids don’t seem to speak the same language as their parents; and the park managers, including Ed and Janet’s immediate boss, Nordstrom (James Stanley), who use a kind of vicious doublespeak. It all culminates with the arrival of Linda, another “cavewoman,” whose silence is threatening even if you want to laugh at her intensity. That pretty much goes for this wonderful show on the whole: it’s amusing and bizarre, but it strikes a chord within you that makes you leave feeling a tad unsettled.

Details: Pastoralia plays at PS 122 through Oct. 9. Shows are Wed.-Sat. 8:30pm, Sat. & Sun. 4:30pm. Tickets are at Theatermania.

Also: An interesting interview with George Saunders is online at The Morning News.