Theater Review - The Squirrel Trap welcomes audiences to the nut house

PushPush Theater's off-kilter comedy will give you the warm fuzzies

A recurring theme that scurries through contemporary plays and other stories holds that modern life separates men from their true nature, but animals hold the key to their restoration. The idea ranges from werewolf thrillers to heartwarming pet movies, as well as an odd subset of men seeking romantic advice from talking animals.

The Kevin James comedy The Zookeeper gives voice to zoo animals, while Elijah Wood's sitcom "Wilfred" involves a talking dog performed by a deadpan hedonist in a deliberately lousy costume. Decatur's PushPush Theater offers another spin on the idea with The Squirrel Trap, in which an unlikely furry friend gives counsel to a nebbishy guy. Local playwright Dan Walsh hews a little too close to the level of a comedy sketch or sitcom, but The Squirrel Trap features consistent laughs and some sharp ideas about relationships and self-perception.

The Squirrel Trap begins on such an eccentric note that it takes a while for the play to get its bearings. Office drudge Gil (Jeffrey Zwartjes) brings aspiring artist Kirsten (Angèle Masters) back to his tiny home during their awkward first date. When Gil leaves the room, she asks after him, "Would you get laser hair removal for me? On your face?" Knocking noises follow from the attic, which she takes as Gil's replies. When he returns, Gil claims no knowledge of the conversation and rebuffs Kirsten when she makes a pass at him.

Alone, Gil feels down on himself and goes about his usual nightly routine. Then in comes big, bearded actor Bernard Setaro Clark, wearing standard human clothes along with a big bushy tail. It turns out that not only does a squirrel live in Gil's attic, it's also an astute judge of character — and can talk. The squirrel points out Gil's personality flaws and hidden strengths in an effort to help his budding relationship with Kirsten.

The dynamic between Gil and the squirrel suggests what the outcome would be if you took a vision quest and discovered that your animal guide was an untidy roommate with no sense of personal boundaries. Clark doesn't overplay the animal characteristics and hilariously deadpans the rodent's discovery of the titular trap: "I don't want to sound paranoid, but I think this was deliberate." He comes across less like a woodland creature than the kind of intrusive friend who criticizes you for your own good. Allegedly.

Zwartjes' costumes and body language suggest Bob Newhart at his most defeated and schlubby, although the actor overdoes Gil's gesticulation and high-pitched voice, as if he's playing a vaudeville comic instead of a contemporary everyman. Masters smartly underplays Kirsten's quirkiness and initially seems deceptively stable — she's the kind of oddball who doesn't immediately set off alarm bells.

PushPush stages The Squirrel Trap as part of a new initiative to develop 30 original stage and screen stories in anticipation of an international film and performance festival scheduled for 2016. The Squirrel Trap drags on too long, wringing every last drop of significance from its symbols, but overall cleverly examines the tension between the fear of intimacy and the fear of loneliness. You wonder if The Squirrel Trap's characters would benefit more from the attention of a couples' therapist or Dr. Dolittle.

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