Ham on wry, the Ridiculous specialty

What's more ridiculous than false modesty? None of that for the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, whose latest play is proudly called ``The Artificial Jungle: A Masterpiece of Suspense.'' Masterpiece, eh? That's a heady word. But the Ridiculous troupe eats heady words for breakfast. And it never tires of poking fun at itself -- in its parodistic plays, its ham-on-wry performances, and yes, the title page of its own program.

Actually, as a longtime Ridiculous-watcher, I have more trouble swallowing the word ``suspense'' in that subtitle. Has this gaggle of hardcore fun-havers suddenly gone sinister on us?

Not really. Although its plot is a demented murder mystery, ``The Artificial Jungle'' turns out to be no darker than its environment, a big-city pet shop owned and operated by one Chester Nurdiger and family. Accent on the nurd, of course.

It's an ordinary pet shop, dealing in the usual furry and feathery friends -- and a few finny ones, too, including a pair of piranhas who glare at us from a tank at center stage. Played by hyperactive puppets, they're two of the show's liveliest characters. And the deadliest, as well, when a new employee named Zachary Slade enlists them in a fiendish plot.

Zachary seems to have made a wrong turn on his way to ``The Postman Always Rings Twice'' or ``Double Indemnity,'' or one of a zillion other melodramas. One gander at gorgeous Roxanne Nurdiger and he's head-over-heels in love.

She falls for him, too -- and before the postman could ring even once, they've hatched a plot to make fish food of poor Chester, her husband. It's a foolproof scheme, exults Roxanne, pointing out that ``nobody ever sent a piranha up the river!''

I won't give away more of the plot, which grows goofier as it goes along.

Like all Ridiculous plays, ``The Artificial Jungle'' was written by Charles Ludlam, who kills off his own character (Chester) before the intermission -- not because he's shy about stealing the show, but so he can return in Act II as a ``Night of the Living Dead'' version of Banquo's Ghost. Ludlam also directed the production, which has his usual energy and inventiveness. Along with Ridiculous regulars Everett Quinton and Black-Eyed Susan, the cast includes Ethyl Eichelberger in a bravura performance as Mother Nurdiger, the dowager of the pet shop family.

``The Artificial Jungle'' has some of the brash vulgarity and downright bad taste that were once Ridiculous trademarks, but it steers a PG-rated course most of the way. It is having an indefinite run at the Ridiculous theater in Greenwich Village.

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