‘Curious’ and charming comedy in Westfield

By John Lyle Belden

If you are around stages long enough, eventually a community theatre will mount “The Curious Savage.” This 1950 gem by popular screenwriter and playwright John Patrick was maybe a little too sentimental for more than a premiere run on Broadway over 70 years ago, but contains a rich variety of themes and subtleties (starting with its title). It is also a gift for a neighborhood playhouse with its single stage set and nearly a dozen fun and interesting characters to perform. Thus, it arrives with Main Street Productions in Westfield.

On a typical day in post-WWII America, we meet people who are intelligent, friendly and a bit eccentric. At The Cloisters, a mental institution, this is the wing of those needing the least supervision. Something is a little off about each of the patients – something that if resolved could lead to their exit. But they take comfort in their present home, and eagerly await a new arrival. Miss Willie (Rachel Pope), the nurse, sends them to their rooms, as head psychiatrist Dr. Emmett (Tom Riddle) brings in Mrs. Ethel P. Savage (Tanya Haas), looking like a normal older woman of the era, carrying a huge teddy bear. She has been committed by her step-children – U.S. Sen. Titus Savage (Steven Marsh), socialite Lily Belle Savage (Jan Boercherding), and Judge Samuel Savage (Ian A. Montgomery) – who claim she has been acting too irrationally since her husband (their father) died. Ethel insisted on becoming (gasp!) an actress, and even worse, wants to take the millions of dollars she inherited and start a foundation to give it away.

After the relatives depart, the inmates (who had been eavesdropping) introduce themselves. Fairy May (Phoebe Aldridge) is gregarious and thoughtful, and constantly embellishing “facts” about her life. Hannibal (Thom Johnson) is a statistician, replaced by a calculating machine, who convinced himself he can play violin. Florence (Jennifer Poynter) dotes on her five-year-old son, the doll she carries in place of the child she lost in infancy. Veteran Jeffrey (Josh Rooks) carries his survivor’s guilt as an invisible (except to him) facial scar, and vaguely remembers he played the piano before the War. Mrs. Paddy (Lisa Warner) an aspiring seascape painter, was once told by her husband to “Shut up!” and she did, never speaking a word except, when emotional, she lists the things she hates – including electricity, which she gave up for Lent.

This wonderful, gentle comedy takes no cheap shots at the disordered. Enterprising methods of exercise, for instance, look silly but contain their own rational intent. While entertaining, we also see how their eccentricities become limiting, demonstrating their need for treatment. Where the “crazy” comes in is when the trio of Savages arrive to attempt to force Ethel to reveal what she has done with the family fortune. As Lily Belle betrays her classlessness, Samuel his whimpering indecision, and Titus his blowhard bluster (Marsh looks like his head will literally explode), the residents appear downright sane.

Haas keeps Ethel endearing, yet sly, charming, and conniving like a “Mame” or “Dolly” character in captivity. Her housemates also work their way into our hearts as they go to great lengths to maintain perpetual happiness. Pope and Riddle show the genuine concern their characters have for everyone’s wellbeing.

Director Nancy Lafferty has done an outstanding job with this American classic. Remaining performances are Thursday through Sunday, Oct. 6-9, at the Basile Westfield Playhouse, 220 N. Union St. For info and tickets, visit westfieldplayhouse.org.

Belfry sets a place for you

By John Lyle Belden

What’s the most important room in the house?

You might answer the kitchen, as that’s where the food is; or the living room, as that’s where the TV is; or, of course, the bathroom for obvious reasons. But the play “The Dining Room,” a comedy by A. R. Gurney, makes a case for this often-overlooked (if you even have it) space that was a stoic witness to change for middle-class America through the 20th century.

In the Belfry Theatre production, occupying the Switch Theatre in Fishers through Jan. 30, seven actors show us 18 scenes through 40 years (1939-79) with one nice but not quite antique table and set of chairs. Though it finally goes on the market in the era of Disco, this house is mostly home to members of a single family. They wouldn’t consider themselves wealthy but are well-off enough to have at least a cook and maid, at least in the early decades.

The fourth wall (French doors, we are told) becomes our window into their lives, as even in the stuffy past, there are youngsters looking towards the new while elders cling to the best of what has been. As the scenes bounce back and forth through the years, parents become grandparents, children become parents, and there’s always something we really shouldn’t talk about at the table.

The ensemble of Mia Gordon, Jennifer J. Kaufmann, Tim Long, Jeff Maess, Tom Riddle, Addie Taylor, and Debbie Underwood splendidly take on what must be a fun acting exercise, inhabiting the various ages and characters – only one is an actual youth, so “child” roles take on extra charm as the older hands truly commit. Under the direction of Diane W. Wilson, the scenes flow easily into each other, sometimes having a person or two from one era sharing the space with oncoming folks from another, making the room, in a way, timeless.

Though real tensions and drama sometimes pop up, this play is mainly a gentle comedy, the kind of feel-good family portrait that we can use about now. Even if we aren’t mid-century WASPs, we can feel a sting of familiarity in dealing with relatives in changing times. And it’s good to find something to laugh about, or at least knowingly smile, in it all.

Find the venue at Ji-Eun Lee Music Academy, 10029 E. 126th St., Suite D (note there is street construction in the area). Find info and tickets at www.thebelfrytheatre.com.

BCP: Life’s changes not always a laughing matter

By John Lyle Belden

The title “Making God Laugh,” for the comic drama now on stage at Buck Creek Players, refers to the old joke about giving the Almighty a giggle by telling Him your plans.

And this good Catholic family’s matriarch, Ruthie (Gloria Bray), definitely has plans. With postal-worker husband Bill (Tom Riddle) at her side, she wants to see: son Rick (Matt Spurlock) succeed at something, any scheme at all, other than high school football MVP; son Tom (Ben Jones) become a priest, maybe Monsignor (maybe the Vatican?); and daughter Maddie (Jenni White) to get being an actor out of her system so she can settle down with a nice young man.

The scenes are set at various holidays: Thanksgiving 1980, Christmas 1990, New Years Eve 2000, and an unusual and emotional “Easter” in 2010. We see the evolution of these characters, and what remains unchanging. From the life-changing choices made by Maddie and Tom, to Ruthie staying ever set in her ways and expectations, at the core of this family story is love. There is also the struggle for acceptance, both of others and of self, giving the plot surprising depth.

This cast wear their roles like the comfortable clothes one wears around kin. Bray is a rock; Jones gives one of his best performances; and White excels as a person that she admits felt a bit autobiographical. Cathy Cutshall directs.

For those of us who lived through the eras, the references to each decade bring a knowing smile. (There is also a mention of the game Catholic Jeopardy — which apparently does exist, as a box of it is under the coffee table.) At the end of each scene, there is a family photo, leading to a full album in the end.

You don’t have to be Catholic to appreciate this family’s struggles – we all know a Ruthie we’re related to. And God isn’t the only one laughing. Performances run through Sunday, April 7, at Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeastern Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74). Call 317-862-2270 or visit www.buckcreekplayers.com.

P.S.: As an example of the fact that anything can happen in live theatre, during a scene change on opening night there was a spontaneous audience sing-along. The BCP crew were both surprised and amused.

Mud Creek hosts hilarious holiday hostage hijinks

By John Lyle Belden

Christmas should not be this funny, should it?

From the beginning scene, Mud Creek Players’ “In-Laws, Outlaws, and Other People (That Should Be Shot)” starts firing off the zingers, as holiday host Thomas Douglas (Ronan Marra) and teen daughter Beth (Audrey Duprey) discuss frankly the odd behavior of the relatives who will gather for their traditional Christmas Eve dinner.

There will be redneck Bud (Tom Riddle), his wife Bunny (Jennifer Poynter), a Jersey girl with no sense of personal space, and their super-achiever daughter Tracy (Alaina Moore); as well as elderly New Yorkers Aunt Rose (Kerry Mitchell) and Uncle Leo (Robert C. Boston Jr.) who never stop talking — either to bicker at each other or to name-drop and reminisce from days gone by. Tom’s wife Janet (Margie Worrell) is also expected, but her business flight from Vermont is late.

The Douglas home is caught in an unexpected snowstorm, but that doesn’t stop neighbor and local busybody Mrs. Draper (Veronique Duprey) from coming over to complain that Tom hasn’t turned on his holiday lights. Soon, they have bigger problems — unexpected guests Tony (Brock Francis) and Vinny (Connor Phelan), a pair of robbers hiding from police patrols. At gunpoint, Tony insists that everyone have a normal evening meal, but he soon finds that “normal” has no place in this house.

The home becomes more crowded with hostages as neighbor kid Paul (who is sweet on Beth) shows up, followed later by his sister Emily (Rylee Odle), then their mother (Jennifer Kaufmann). The robbers try to contain the situation by putting men and women in separate rooms, but that only spreads out the madness. Also, good-natured Vinny seems to be succumbing to a sort of reverse Stockholm Syndrome.

Add Aniqua ShaCole’ as the inevitable visiting police officer, and you have a situation ripe with comedy.  Yes, being a Christmas play, the Steve Franco script does include a bit of heart — and maybe a happy ending — but I also found a lot of moments of laughing until I nearly passed out. Francis, Phelan and Moore especially get to stretch their comic muscles, as this whole ensemble shines in an uproarious good time. You may even see a little of your own relatives in this bunch, or at least have something to compare to when holidays at home get extreme.

Find this farce at the Mud Creek Players Barn, 9740 E. 86th St. (between Castleton and Geist), through Dec. 15. Call 317-290-5343 or visit mudcreekplayers.org.

 

Mud Creek presents a little mystery with a lot of laughs

By John Lyle Belden

It’s a real treat to see stage veterans cut loose on a good American farce, such as the faces familiar to audiences at Mud Creek Players generating laughter with “Exit the Body.”

In the early 1960s – when telephones were not only still connected to the wall, in rural areas you still had to talk to the local operator – popular mystery writer Crane Hammond (played by Linda Eberharter) is spending a few weeks in the New England countryside to relax and work on her next novel, dragging reluctant secretary Kate (Barb Weaver) along. The cottage, just down the road from best friend Lillian (Judy McGroarty) and arranged by local real estate agent Helen (Ann Ellerbrook), has secrets of its own – including the possibility of hidden stolen diamonds! It appears that the housekeeper, Jenny (Savannah Jay), is in cahoots with local thug Randolph (Eric Matters) to recover those jewels, wherever they are.

Meanwhile, Lillian introduces her new husband, Lyle (Tim Long), but because of trouble with the old husband, she tells people that he is actually Crane’s husband, Richard (Joe Forestal – he’ll show up eventually). For local flavor, we have handyman/taxi driver/sheriff Vernon (Kevin Shadle). And for the titular Body, we have Phillip Smith (Tom Riddle), who could be anybody.

The hilarious slamming-door antics are helped along by a closet at the center of the set (designed by Jay Ganz) that opens into both the living room and the backstage library. The script and cast make full use of its comic and spooky (the body was there, now it’s gone!) possibilities. Though a mystery, this show delivers more laughs than chills, much like a Scooby-Doo episode for grown-ups.

Ellerbrook has Crane dealing with being in the plot rather than writing it, with McGroarty’s Lillian welcoming the diversion and Weaver’s Kate chewing the scenery with biting sarcasm. Long has Lyle just taking it all in stride. Generating the most laughs are Shadle – with a style reminiscent of a Carol Burnett cast member, keeping his character at the edge of absurdity – and Jay, whose airhead Jenny manages to charm while squeezing all the corn out of a Southern accent.

“Exit the Body” runs through Sept. 29 at the Mud Creek Players “Barn” at 9740 E. 86th St. (between Castleton area and Geist Reservoir). Call 317-290-5343 or visit www.mudcreekplayers.org.

Foreign affairs are hilarious with Mud Creek’s brilliant ‘Amorous Ambassador’

By Wendy Carson

Mud Creek Players are sending their 2017-18 season out on a very high note with their production of Michael Parker’s hilarious farce, “The Amorous Ambassador.” While the show is a continuation of the saga of “The Sensuous Senator” (which Mud Creek staged in 2016), you need not have seen the previous production to enjoy this play.

The story centers on “Hormone Harry” Douglas, who, after losing his bid for the Presidency, was appointed as Ambassador to England. He and his family have now set up household in a nice little cottage in the countryside, complete with a butler. As we join the family unit, they have each decided to take off in separate ways for the weekend. Prior to leaving, though, each of them confirms that Perkins, the butler, will be “the soul of discretion” should anything occur. So daughter Debbie is off to make memories with her girlfriends; Lois, his doting wife, is off to the spa; and Harry plans to play golf in Scotland.

Once the wife and daughter have left, Harry and sexy neighbor, Marian, begin their tryst, including costumes to fulfil their fantasies: Marian’s is a French maid. But as soon as they exit the stage, Debbie reappears with her boyfriend, Joe, for their own little weekend of togetherness. Add to this, a bomb threat at the embassy suddenly brings security chief Captain South and Harry’s ditzy secretary, Faye, on site to turn the cottage into a temporary Embassy – complete with a total lockdown of the perimeter. Now Marian has to pretend to be a real servant, while Debbie adds a wig and dress to her friend, “Josephine.” The result is a sidesplitting evening of confusion and overall silliness.

Ronan Marra does a great job at keeping Harry’s lustful advances going while appearing to be in charge. Colin Landberg is masterful through the trio of characters he is given to embody – Joe, Josephine and “Marc Anthony.” Sara Castillo Dandurand handily keeps Debbie believing in her father’s virtue even while seemingly compromising her own. Katie Carter’s portrayal of “Maid Marian” shows that she is certainly up for anything. Tom Riddle brings all of the pomp and ruggedness that Captain South’s character demands, with a delightful slapstick turn. While Sherry Compton’s character of Lois is not on the stage for very long, she shines brightly in those moments that she is performing.

While everyone does a wonderful job of playing their roles for all that they are worth, I would like to highlight two exceptional performances:

  • Ann Ellerbrook’s take on the hot, blonde, airhead secretary, Faye, shows the amazing range that a seemingly one-note character can become under the correct actor’s interpretation of a role. She truly brought her character to life in a way that really made me wish I could see more of that character’s story.
  • Craig Kemp is likewise amazing for keeping his character of Perkins, the properly stodgy English butler, from going too far into camp mode. While making sure that his character’s upper lip stayed as stiff as one would expect it to be and a slightly raised eyebrow could cause you to wither, he managed to keep Perkins a warmly accessible grandfatherly figure. That sort of depth in what, again, should have been a simple one-note character shows great range and depth of talent.

With everything happening right now, we can all use a spot of silliness and a good laugh, and this show presents it in spades.

Performances are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, through May 5 at the Mud Creek Players “Barn,” 9740 E. 86th St. (near Geist). Get tickets and info at www.mudcreekplayers.org.