The cantankerous-geezers-in-the-park school of drama gains another intriguing entrant with Sherod Santos' "Lives of the Pigeons," now in a world premiere at Side Project under Adam Webster's direction. The DNA in Santos' work has far more in common with David Mamet's discursive "The Duck Variations" than Herb Gardner's cuddly "I'm Not Rappaport," and there are also echoes of Edward Albee's "The Zoo Story" and dashes of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter.
This isn't to suggest that Santos — one of the most highly lauded contemporary American poets — has simply tossed a lot of influences into the dramatic blender and hit "frappe." In particular, "Lives of the Pigeons" reveals an often disquieting inquiry into questions of morality and identity, rendered with muscular and occasionally quite funny epigrammatic dialogue.
There is a distinct opacity at work here that may frustrate some viewers — incidents from the past are referenced, but never fully explained. This seems consistent with an interview Santos gave in 2010 for the website "How a Poem Happens," in which he noted in reference to his poem "Carousel" (which, like "Lives of the Pigeons," features an act of sudden violence), "I think it's safe to say that every detail is 'realistic,' but it's impossible for a reader to know whether or not that 'realism' derives from the facts of my own experience."
That is very much the case with Gus (Vincent L. Lonergan) and Max (Don Bender), the old men in "Pigeons" who meet regularly in People's Park for chess games and chin-wagging. On this particular day, however, Gus is bedeviled by the dapper Man with Cane (Matthew Lloyd), who appears only when Max is away and proceeds to challenge and catechize Gus on a number of issues, including Gus' rule-breaking proclivity for feeding the pigeons.
The scenes move along parallel lines, with Gus and Max's discussions incorporating memories of a fire that destroyed their old hangout, "the Palace" (though whether it was a bar or some other kind of establishment remains unclear). They also engage in provocative and witty banter about what "good behavior" (as in, prisoners getting time off for good behavior) means. Max notes with exasperation that "It's only good if it's not bad."
Interspersed with the Max-and-Gus variations are the scenes where the latter falls increasingly under the sway of Lloyd's mysterious stranger. Is the Man with Cane a real person, or a manifestation of some guilty aspect of Gus' mind and memory? That's for the audience to decide — as Gus notes at one point, "Some things leap over other things without any logical explanation."
The pacing, particularly between scenes, felt a bit awkward on opening night, and the play feels as if it ends in the middle of taking a breath right before moving toward a larger revelation about the nature of Gus and Max's shared past. But despite some definite hiccups, the spare but thoughtful performances in Webster's production do justice to Santos' elliptical but intriguing tale.
When: Through June 30
Where: The Side Project, 1439 W. Jarvis Ave.
Running time: 70 minutes
Tickets: $20 at 773-340-0140 or thesideproject.net