“What does a man have to do to run a pig farm around here?” wonders the harried Tom (Dan Fredenburgh), the hero (of sorts) of Greg Kotis’s comedy, which has just opened at St. James Theatre, in a production directed by the aptly named Katharine Farmer. As the owner of a struggling farm in an unspecified area of Hicksville, USA, Tom’s troubles are multiple: a dopey hired hand, Tim (Erik Odom) who’s as much hindrance as help, and a frustrated wife, Tina (Charlotte Parry), who’s desperate for a kid. Mostly, though, Tom’s worried about the impending visit from an Environmental Protection Agency officer, Teddy (Stephen Tompkinson), who, when he arrives, turns out to be a gun-toting functionary with a habit of walking into the couple’s kitchen at decidedly inopportune moments.
A slice of rowdy backwoods Americana with a touch of the Coen Bros about it, Pig Farm is unexpectedly engaging for a good part of its running time. Although there are weaker elements from the off (the running-gag repetition of the characters' alliterative names, for one), Kotis – best known for writing the book and lyrics for Urinetown - shows skill in keeping the dialogue just the right side of cartoonish, using hick diction for poetic as well as comedic effects.
The play’s satire on changes in farming practices and federal government interventions is well managed, and Farmer’s bright production seems to find the writing’s strengths, aided by a fine set design by Carla Goodman and some great music choices. (No production that includes Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” as interval music can be entirely without merit.) The excellent cast also performs brilliantly. Parry, in particular, even manages to bring some plangent grace notes to what could be an extremely problematic characterisation, as she skilfully conveys Tina’s longings, while also throwing herself with hilarious abandon into a sex scene with Odom that’s a great parody of the Lange/Nicholson kitchen encounter in The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Given these strong points, it’s a shame that Kotis’s play finally blows it, undoing its competent work with a grotesquely extended final stretch that’s off in every department, not least in its cavalier approach to violence. (Lapped up by most of the chortling audience, it must be said.) Since, by this stage, the protagonists have gone beyond caricature to actually mean something to us, the final slide into bloody farce not only seems about the weakest way possible for the play to conclude: it also makes you feel an idiot for caring in the first place.
Booking until November 21st.