Decadence reigns in disturbing Late Night

Judging Catastrophic Theatre’s Our Late Night by how well the production realizes the play’s intent, you’d have to rate it an undisputed bull’s-eye.

Wallace Shawn’s 1975 Obie winner means to be dreamlike and disturbing. Catastrophic’s rendition, finely calibrated by director Jason Nodler and deftly acted by a strong cast, certainly is.

Our Late Night was Shawn’s first produced play, heralding a writer who would become a stalwart of the off-Broadway avant-garde with such subsequent works as Marie and Bruce, The Designated Mourner and Aunt Dan and Lemon.

The 60-minute play depicts a cocktail party in a Manhattan penthouse, with prologue and epilogue scenes of hosts Lewis and Annette in preparation for the event and in its aftermath.

The premise is that the characters speak the things they usually are forbidden to say, discussing sexual cravings and unusual predilections, bodily functions, bizarre fantasies and misadventures. Teasing hints of cannibalism are among the more genteel topics.

They share these confidences as matter-of-factly as if they were trading the usual innocuous banter of changing fashions and real estate prices. A few simulated intimacies take place as the party unfolds, but no one seems to really connect with anyone else. All remain essentially aloof, isolated figures, their exchanges invariably as off-putting as they are enticing.

The disconnect between the characters’ manner and the content they speak provides a potent theatrical charge of irony. The absurdity of it all, the extreme nature of the confessions, the outrageous revelations met by dumbfounded looks — all these aspects make the play frequently hilarious. One astonishing point is that the 35-year-old play isn’t dated at all, because it includes not a single topical reference.

Exactly what Shawn is getting at in this offbeat work is largely open to interpretation. Certainly, the play implies these dark fantasies and savage depths lurk in everyone, even the well-heeled, purportedly civilized types at this gathering. Our Late Night perhaps is most concerned with conjuring the enigma of lust, desire, hunger, whatever you want to call it — always churning, never put to rest even when passions are presumably sated. An extended, central monologue of one character’s insatiable appetite says as much.

Nodler has called this work “the most subversive play I know,” making it a natural for his envelope-pushing troupe. He has staged it with finesse, giving the play precisely the seemingly contradictory impact that it requires — that of being subtly shocking. He makes each exchange or monologue register as a contained, pointed vignette.

The Catastrophic family of players is at its best. As the host couple, Greg Dean spans the surly, savage and submissive as Lewis, while Mikelle Johnson’s Annette exudes blithe exuberance in her teasing wickedness. Kyle Sturdivant’s Tony bounces from jocularity to desperation and forges with intrepid determination through his big, bad monologue.

Troy Schulze makes nerdy, needy Jim’s attempts to connect pathetically funny, especially when paired with Karina Pal Montano-Bowers’ breathlessly sensual Kristin, who lures him with promises of a wild encounter, then horrifies him with the stipulation that they must first coat themselves with a searing jelly that “burns like lava.” The appalled expression on Schulze’s face at that point is priceless.

Carolyn Houston Boone is amusingly haughty as the remote Samantha, shooting down pickup attempts with aplomb, graceful in her own startling revelations.

Jeff Miller’s Grant epitomizes the play’s technique of dark secrets tossed off with an easygoing, professorial air.

The excellent setting (actor Dean designed it) and Andrew Harper’s mood-enhancing sound are among the other markers of this production’s overall quality.

The party depicted in Our Late Night may be one that most people would not want to attend. But it is one that adventurous theater goers will find fascinating to observe from the safe distance of a seat at DiverseWorks.