In Christian St. Croix’s “Monsters of the American Cinema,” Remy and Pup share a love of classic monster movies, and they frequently play a game rattling off titles based on a theme until one person comes up blank. It starts to get tough once you’re grasping for the fourth or fifth sequel in a series, like “The Mummy’s Curse.”
Remy (Lamar Legend) and Pup (Alexander Kilian) share a lot more than that: a trailer home behind a drive-in movie theater that Remy operates, a penchant for wearing the same cologne — which Pup swipes from Remy — and a mutual trauma that’s defined their lives.
Ever since Remy’s husband died from an overdose, he’s cared for stepson Pup with a mix of cool-dad permissiveness and socially aware didacticism. When you’re a gay Black man with a straight white teenager, there’s some necessary wisdom to impart, particularly when living in a town like San Diego suburb Santee. (Real-life nickname: Klantee, and that was before a man wore a KKK hood in a grocery store in 2020.)
Now on stage at ArtsWest in a world premiere production directed by Legend, “Monsters of the American Cinema” sketches a vivid characterization of a loving if suddenly tenuous bond between father-figure and son, but it largely sidesteps traditional two-hander pleasures. Its staccato rhythm of monologues, reveries and nightmares has Remy and Pup addressing the audience nearly as often as each other.
This is how we learn about Remy’s brief but happy marriage to the “stupid white boy” who charmed him at a protest and how Pup has been afflicted with night terrors since he was a little kid. Pup enthuses about his favorite movie, “The Creature From the Black Lagoon” — “so corny, but like a good so corny” — while Remy details the roster of classic films that’s kept a loyal crowd coming back to the drive-in.
Legend and Kilian embody their characters most convincingly during the scenes of direct address. When they interact, it can feel like two performers talking past each other, though even then, Legend doesn’t miss a laugh line.
Example: Homecoming night, where Remy hands Pup off-brand condoms, and demurs, “I know. Thought we’d be a Trojan household, but the liquor store was all out.”
There’s plenty to admire in St. Croix’s writing, from sly jokes slipped in sideways among his naturalistic language to his use of a simple but effective motif of monster movies and their true villains. He buries the play’s driving conflict until the last act, which merely delays its turn toward narrative convention instead of subverting it entirely.
St. Croix’s discursive style, where moments slip into other moments, doesn’t receive an ideal showcase in ArtsWest’s production, with an opening night performance that was beset with protracted scene changes and multiple muffed lines. Some of these issues will no doubt smooth out over the course of the run, but some hiccups seem baked-in, particularly those caused by Ryan Dunn’s set.
A mobile-home frame crams the stage, while an elevated platform acts as the roof, where Remy and Pup watch movies. The ladder up doesn’t make for swift scene transitions, and it’s hard to imagine any seat having a good sightline of the several key scenes that take place up there among the lights.
Crane your neck, and you might see a teetering relationship find its footing or fracture apart, as the limits of a common bond are tested. But it’s more likely you’ll see neither.