Play Explores the Inner Caveman

Two couples get together for a night of fun and games that turns increasingly savage as it progresses.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, right?

Wrong. Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s Hunter Gatherers may feature a situation somewhat similar to that in Edward Albee’s landmark play. Yet Nachtrieb’s portrait of marital warfare and social disintegration is dissimilar in essential ways and carries the premise to a vastly different end.

The Catastrophic Theatre has mounted a vivid Houston premiere of Hunter Gatherers with a strong cast that makes the most of its biting black comedy and outrageously extreme action.

Premiered to acclaim in San Francisco in 2006, Hunter Gatherers strips away the veneer of civilized behavior to reveal primal urges and unleash the beast within. (And if that doesn’t start a stampede at the box office, what will?)

Two couples reunite each year to celebrate the anniversary of their joint wedding. Each pair consists of a commanding and an acquiescent partner: Alpha Male Richard, a hedonistic artist and his prim, browbeaten wife, Pam; milquetoast doctor Tom and his sexually aggressive wife, Wendy.

The opening gives a taste of things to come as Richard insists that squeamish Pam assist him in slaughtering a lamb to serve to their guests. Nothing in the butcher’s shop was fresh enough, he explains. He wants something still bleeding.

(Don’t worry. You don’t see the “lamb,” just the shuddering, bleat-emitting box that’s holding it.)

Any play that begins with animal sacrifice must progress to other wild acts.

No sooner have the guests arrived than Richard wrestles Tom to the floor in an annual ritual of humiliation (concluded only when Tom gasps, “You’re the stronger man”) and Wendy lustily voices her desire to have a child with Richard. That’s just a prelude to the plentiful sex and violence to come.

Hunter Gatherers alternates between deadpan sarcasm, as when Wendy drily describes Tom’s sexual inadequacies, and cartoonish exaggeration, and as when Richard lapses into his caveman persona. It doesn’t plumb any great depths, and it sometimes strains in its efforts to shock. But Nachtrieb maintains cleverness in his often mordant writing and the play startles and amuses in about equal measure.

Director Jason Nodler keeps the party popping by ramping up the energy level for those sudden, steadily recurring bursts of crazed behavior. He creates different shades of intimacy for the various duo scenes: the two wives together, the two husbands together, Richard with Wendy, Tom with Pam. That allows traces of reality and involvement even amid the wildest doings.

Greg Dean makes a gung-ho, unbridled Richard, the primitive man eager to slaughter his own dinner and father a squadron with anyone available. Over the top, for sure, but the combination of Genghis Khan and Fred Flintstone is pretty funny.

Charlesanne Rabensburg creates a gem of comic characterization as Pam. Sweet and dear, she’s so eager to be the perfect mate and please everyone that there’s a desperation to her niceness, a strain in her smile.

Amy Bruce is marvelously brazen and shameless as Wendy. She accents every line with her sarcastic air, challenging stance and suggestive leer. Aflame with desire at the slightest spark, she’s all too ready for trouble, all too able to make it herself.

Rounding out the mismatched quartet, Troy Schulze achieves understated hilarity as hapless Tom, fall guy to his errant wife and manipulative buddy.

He has a neat way of radiating resentment with a smile. Like Rabensburg’s Pam, he is destined to break out of his mild-mannered rut — and look out when they do so together.

Set and lighting designer Kevin Holden devises a believable living space that is, at the same time, theatrically presentational.

He and Nodler close the show with a fine visual flourish that has greater impact than its brief duration might suggest.

Hunter Gatherers implies that the human race is better served by leaving the veneer of civilized behavior in place. It’s less destructive than the alternative.