But there was a wealth of absurdity in the case of Travis, who appeared in TV commercials, occasionally drove the car and liked to have wine in a goblet with the women who kept him.
It took someone far removed from the case — in this instance, Nick Jones, a writer on “Orange is the New Black” — to find the humor enough in the unusual story to create a comedy about it, “Trevor,” which won the 2015 Ovation Award for Playwriting when it premiered.
Alex Levy fought for the rights to give the regional premiere of “Trevor” at 1st Stage in Tysons, where he is artistic director, and he directs a strangely fascinating production that works largely because of the actor playing the chimp, Doug Wilder.
From the opening moments of the play, you might guess he’s just another failing millennial, living with mom, flopping on the couch, not finding work, and flipping on the remote. But very soon — from the way he carries himself low to the body, bouncing always, his hands seemingly so large he appears to be dragging knuckles on the floor — it’s clear he’s the chimp in question.
Without some hairy primate costume, but in sweatpants and a green sweater vest, it’s understood very quickly by the audience that he’s the overgrown chimp, meant to be in the adjoining cage on the set, but who never gets there much, considering what a wreck the house is where he spends his time, throwing pillows around, kicking over toy bins and ripping up paper.
Trevor talks a mile a minute about hoping to get some work, maybe another Hollywood ad with Morgan Fairchild, but he doesn’t seem to be connecting with his Leigh Jameson, who plays the indulgent maternal figure Sandra. Indeed, nothing she says connects with him either, though there are a few words that cut through (“Hollywood!”) and there is some bits of sign language between them.
In flashback scenes when he’s working he can only hear the gibberish of the humans around him. He can only guess what they’re saying (or what the product is he’s supposed to be advertising). Likewise the humans can’t pick up what he’s saying. But there are some creatures in Trevor’s head with whom he can commiserate, such as Oliver (Aaron Bliden), another show biz chimp, who seems to be racking up jobs and brags of having a human wife and half-human children.
Trevor is getting anxious because he’s getting none of those jobs. And now the neighbor (Amanda Forstrom) is upset because he’s taken a joyride to Dunkin’ Donuts and back and parked in her lawn. She’s got a new baby to protect!
The local sheriff Jim (Sun King Davis), knows about the chimp and tries to keep peace – he got enough of a kick out of it that he had Trevor pose as a priest at his daughter’s christening. But an animal control person (Jacob Yeh) is fully frightened of what seems to be a violent creature run amok.
Though there are a lot of similarities with the Connecticut case — luckily there isn’t the same climactic violence. And yet, for the sheer size of Wilder and his unpredictability, there is the threat of it. And what is to become of the chimp? Already Sandra’s husband seems to have recently died from natural causes.
Anxiety permeates the play and puts a grip on the comedy at hand, providing a memorable control.
While Wilder’s manic energy steals the show, the cast is uniformly strong, with Jameson particularly good as the sympathetic keeper and the versatile Forstrom doing double duty as the neighbor and, with a big 70s wig, Morgan Fairchild (yet it’s a different hairstyle in the neighbor that is one of the reasons given for the Connecticut attack).
Katheryn Kawecki’s set is built for the mayhem that occurs on it, with side areas indicating the outdoor cage, a play area, a mystical backyard jungle and next door. Property designer Cindy Landrum Jacobs has to keep track of a lot of junk that flies around. Robbie Hayes’ lights seemed a little spotty as it dimmed in some spots meant to hold attention; Serah O’Halloran created the sound design, minus any “Alley Oop” samples.
“Trevor” continues through Feb. 26 at 1st Stage, Tysons, VA.