nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
July 23, 2005
Pulling Teeth is a new play by the young playwright Brandon Koebernick. It begins in lightly satirical mode: to the strains of the Leave it to Beaver theme song, the lights come up on a typical Middle American kitchen. Seth, the husband, comes home from work, dragging a big heavy suitcase in with him. Katie, the pretty, perky wife, enters and greets her breadwinner. But what's in the suitcase belies the mundane cuteness of the scene: it's a dead human body, chopped into pieces. Seth, it seems, is the guy who disposes of the remains of murder victims—the next guy on the assembly line after the hit man, as it were.
Seth cheerfully yanks the teeth out of the disembodied head with a pliers (having first set out some protective cloth to cover the kitchen table), and then drops two bloody-stumped hands into a pot of boiling water (to remove the skin more easily; both of his tasks are designed to make identification of the victim more difficult if and when the body is discovered). Meanwhile, Katie chatters about the guests they're expecting for dinner, and reminds Seth not to swear. It's as if the Addams Family were born-again Christians.
However, Koebernick shifts gears rather abruptly with the arrival of Vic, one of the middle managers in the organization where Seth works. Vic tells Seth that a job from five months ago has gone sour: the body has been identified, and Seth is to blame. For reasons never quite made clear, Vic "punishes" Seth by ordering him to kill another employee, Stevie. Vic has told Stevie to come to Seth's house and will return himself later after Seth has done the deed.
From this unfortunate and somewhat illogical premise, Pulling Teeth morphs into a very strained dark comedy (as Seth and Katie pretend to be rough and tough to hold their own against Stevie, who of course is even more genteel and mild-mannered than they), and then into a still darker exploration of the human capability for violence and/or evil when Vic comes back too soon and our hero and heroine have to take swift action to save their skins. The outcome yields some jolts, but without seriously-intended information about Seth and Katie to anchor it, it doesn't finally amount to much more than shock value. I think Koebernick is aiming for something more substantive than that: he might achieve it with a more consistent tone throughout (and a more consistent attitude toward his characters: is he asking us to sympathize with Seth and Katie, or to make fun of them?).
The play is directed tightly by Jared Culverhouse and features nicely detailed performances by Don Jeanes as Seth, Julian James as Stevie, and especially Natalie Barback as Katie, who transcends the satiric edge of the script throughout. Michael Mason's portrayal of Vic is less assured. The cheerfully realistic set by Stephen Tucker aids the proceedings.