Alien Invader at Catholic University

The worst video game ever meets the most dysfunctional family ever in the groundbreaking work of new playwright Frank DiSalvo Jr., as Catholic University of America presents Alien Invader. Based around the dysfunctions of four siblings one year after the death of their parents, this play presents an exciting new take on how families cope with one another during the most difficult of times – and although the moments are dire with dramatic flare-ups and consequences – the script is loaded with humor and character quirks that will keep the audience thoroughly entertained. While most of the story focuses on the family – a part of the family has an existential moment with the worst video game ever and goes on a journey to find himself – even if that journey involves going to the deserts of New Mexico to dig up the old cartridges of the failed video game. It’s a rollicking good time with peaks of intense drama and valleys of touching moments all coated over with a blast of hilarity – a wonderful piece of work to submit as an MFA thesis play.

Anna Lathrop and Thomas DiSalvo. Photo by Colin Hovde.

The stage is crafted simply with a living room set and framed photographs all across the mantelpiece. Scenic Designer Dr. Tom Donahue does a splendid job of creating a simplistic living room with clearly delineated spaces to indicate the rest of the sprawling house including a kitchen, basement and upstairs with bedrooms and bathrooms without ever having to make those rooms present on the stage. The players make great use of this space, making it feel lived in and yet preserved at the same time. The sense of untouched fills the room with the way books, magazines and other clutter are consistently left all over every available surface, yet the characters live in the space, as if clinging to the memory of the way the house once was a year ago.

The play itself is well-composed. There are moments of raw truth that echo through in both hilarity and harrowing heartfelt moments, never feeling contrived or forced. This is a rare thing to see in new written comedy as the trap of “going for the cheap easy laugh” often catches up the writer. But Frank DiSalvo Jr. creates a poignant show with witty one-liners, appropriate zingers and an extremely easy to follow plot and dialogue structure that really allows the audience to engage with the material. Some of the funniest moments come from the dialogue supplied to Elliot’s character, in particular when he comes home with pizza for the family, launching into a clever speech that equates the arrival of the pizza with the arrival of the Christ baby on Christmas, in the style of the angel speaking to the shepherds.

The actors really take well to the material provided, delving deeply into the psychology of the characters to really adapt them to the situation.

The most impressive performance in this respect comes from Anna Lathrop as Danielle, the youngest sister who has suffered brain damage and therefore has a speech problem. Lathrop uses her body to struggle and express emotions when her words cannot – and when she finally grasps the words – they are released so forcefully from her mouth that they often stun the audience. Lathrop’s interactions with her other siblings are extraordinary, bickering with her sister Sophia (Lauren Davis) using her gestures and fragments of words to conduct a tantrum-style name calling fit. It is an incredibly impressive character to master, and Lathrop does the young girl justice in her performance.

The most dramatic moments are often during shouting matches in the family home -with the four siblings attempting to out vocalize each other. Often these sorts of loud moments on stage get repetitive and obnoxious – but in this play they are constantly throwing new barbs at one another, trying to bring each other down to their level of low making each shouting match like watching a really exciting sporting event.

Grant (Patrick Flannery) and Danielle (Anna Lathrop) lead most of these events, and have several just between each other. Flannery and Lathrop have a hysterical scene that builds to spontaneous combustion between their characters as they attempt to one-up each other in a contest of who can mimic and imitate the other better, throwing out the worst qualities of each other in the attempt. These two actors spend most of the show bickering beyond the mild levels of normal siblings and create compelling scenes for the audience loaded with well delivered one-line zingers and hurtful barbs that really make you feel their frustration.

Christopher Williams and Thomas DiSalvo. Photo by Colin Hovde.

But the real quirky character here is Elliot (Thomas DiSalvo). He is displayed as the epitome of failure, having failed college eight times, doing little more than vegetating in the basement playing video games. DiSalvo is bizarre, caught up in his own delusions, and makes a believable hilarious character for the audience to enjoy. His encounter with game designer Paul Zeferino (Christopher Williams) is epic. DiSalvo and Williams practically have a mental break-down in the desert, mostly one-sided and lead by DiSalvo’s character as they struggle to know their purpose in life while attempting to bury their failures. Williams adds an additional element of hilarity to the show with his self-pitying appearance in the desert, contemplating his buried failures. The two make a great comic team in this already entertaining show.

It is the perfect blend of comedy and drama with all of the right emotional peaks and one heck of an ending that you never see coming. Do not miss this brilliant new work at Catholic University.

Running Time: Two hours and 5 minutes, with one intermission.

Alien Invader plays through February 25, 2012 at the Hartke Theatre – on the Catholic University Campus – 3801 Harewood Road, N.E., in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 319-4000, or purchase them online.