The Star Ledger, December 1, 2009

Star Ledger

Brothers in arms
By Peter Felicia
For the Star Ledger

New Jersey’s most promising playwright is coming along quite nicely.

Twenty-five-year-old Ben Clawson, a recent graduate of Montclair State University has a little Sam Shepard in him, and a lot of Martin McDonagh, too. Best of all, though, he has plenty of Ben Clawson.

His newest effort is "Omnivores" which Strange dog Theatre Company is producing in Madison, in association with Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey. Clawson takes his plot from an actual event that occurred on Long Island five years ago, when a prankster dropped a frozen turkey from a highway overpass. The bird went through a car's windshield and severely injured the female driver.

In real life, the woman forgave the misguided lad. But Clawson knows that absolution doesn’t make for good drama. So he’s created a scenario in which the victim's brother, Cole (Joseph Palestina), discovers that the perpetrator was Louis (Scott Cagney), who works for the phone company. Cole plans to avenge his sister.

First he enlists his brother Clyde (Brian Parks) to take part in the plot. They get Louis to the family s out-of-the-way cottage ostensibly to install a phone

Adding to the dark humor of Omnivores is the fact that the brothers have never liked each other. Clyde likes to taunt Cole that he's only an adjunct professor at a community college Cole rebuts that Clyde is merely working in construction.

Soon they return to petty childhood memories and arguments, and lose sight of their mission. Instead of working together, Cole’s brain gets in the way of Clyde’s brawn, and vice versa.

When they should be playing good-cop-bad cop with Louis, they both wind up playing putrid cop.

In the middle of their getting nowhere, their uncle Nutsy (Thom Molyneaux) unexpectedly arrives. The name may seem extreme, but it turns out to he an apt adjective for the character. Nutsy is hardly avuncular, and we see why his nephews (whom he calls very unflattering names) turned out as loathsome as they did.

lt’s a violent play, but considering the loonies involved, the bloodshed is logical rather than gratuitous. Along the way, Clawson wisely concludes that revenge is not so sweet after all.

The able director Artem Yatsunov creates the right mood of menace. He’s also wisely cast three of New Jersey’s best emerging actors, as well as one of its most beloved old pros.

Palestina has the right urban sensibility for Cole, while Parks has the proper working-class demeanor for Clyde. Palestina takes Cole on the journey from haughty superiority to nervous-wreck status.

Parks amuses in the way he gives his opinion of the book Cole wrote. “I read a couple of pages while waiting for my car to be inspected at the DMW Clyde says drolly. (That's also Exhibit A that Clawson is an incisive writer; what an imaginative and specific way of saying that Clyde read the book when he was utterly bored.)

Cagney makes the hapless Louis a simpering whimpering child. He spends much of the play unconscious on the floor or on a chair, but when he comes to, he comes through.

Nutsy is a thoroughly amoral character, and Molyneaux expertly plays the man’s rugged individualism. By comparison, Nusty makes General Patton seem like the most feminine of Peter Pans.

That a play involving a turkey opened on Thanksgiving weekend was indeed fitting. "Omnivores," though, is certainly no turkey itself, but a solid and impressive effort.

Peter Filichia writes about New Jersey theater for The Star-Ledger: He may be reached at