Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, April 2004

I am a big believer in truth in advertising. In other words, I appreciate a theatre company that knows what it is, and what it isn’t, and states it clearly. Theatre is not one-size-fits-all (nothing is, actually.) Different people enjoy different forms of entertainment, and everyone is happiest when they get what they were expecting.

Mill City Productions is off to a good start, having stated clearly who and what they are – a community theatre group open to all interested participants regardless of previous theatrical experience – and what they are offering – cheap laughs and free food. They deliver exactly what they promise with cheerful good humor. Good show!

Community theatre is theatre by the people, of the people, and for the people. You do not expect expensive sets and costumes. You do not expect to see award-winning actors, although many of the most memorable performances I have witnessed have been delivered by “amateurs” in such a setting. You go to see your friends and to be entertained.

For your entertainment, Mill City is presenting a brief comic monologue and two one-act comedies. The evening begins with Jackie DeGiorgis as the titular character in Christopher Durang’s monologue Mrs. Sorkin. Mrs. Sorkin is a wealthy middle-aged hausfrau from Westport, Connecticut. Thanks no doubt to a generous donation, she has earned the right to welcome the audience and deliver a short speech on “the theatre,” the gist of which is that people need theatre the way plants need photosynthesis to grow and thrive, despite another brief analogy wherein theatre is defined as an activity in which one exhausts oneself completely. As a person who sees a great deal of theatre – the good, the bad and the ugly – I frequently ponder some of Mrs. Sorkin’s questions, and completely agree with her that four hours is way to long for any play.

It is evident that Durang had a lot of fun writing this short piece, which allows him a chance to both celebrate and poke gentle fun at his chosen craft. DeGiorgis’ Mrs. Sorkin is a little too broad. She gets the humor but not the subtle pathos behind the character. But that is said only when holding her performance up to the highest standard. In terms of fun (and DeGiorgis and I are unanimous on the importance of fun in life!) Mrs. Sorkin is a hoot. DeGiorgis has gone all out on her costume, looking very much like HRH Queen Elizabeth II dressed for a night on the town. The photosynthesis analogy was especially appreciated by DeGiorgis’ biology students from Drury, who have heard her expound on the process on numerous more serious occasions.

Following the monologue is a one-act comedy by Durang, Wanda’s Visit, directed by Kate Merrigan. This show is the weakest link in the evening, although it is still very funny. It concerns a repressed and joyless couple named Jim (Mike Grogan) and Marsha (Elizabeth Urban) who receive an unexpected letter from Jim’s old high school sweetheart Wanda (Marissa Carlson.) Wanda wants to pay a call. Jim remembers her as “a looker” and thinks it will be fun to reminisce. Marsha is not fooled for a second. She knows what we all know, that Wanda’s visit will be a disaster in one way or another, and that it will sorely test their already tenuous marriage. But Marsha has trouble saying no, and Jim wants to say yes. The doorbell rings and Wanda arrives.

Sure enough, Wanda is the guest from hell and her visit, which turns into far more than just one evening, is disastrous in every conceivable way. Frankly, I don’t think this is a very good play to start with, which is why, despite the best efforts of everyone involved, it seems awkward and uncomfortable. We are in predictable situation comedy land. Haven’t we seen Ricky and Lucy Ricardo, Rob and Laura Petrie, Jim and Betty Anderson, and innumerable other comic duos reenact almost identical plots? But the difference is, we cared about those couples because they came into our living room week after week. Several half-hour episodes have introduced us to their lives and history together. We don’t have that same investment in Durang’s Jim and Marsha, and so we don’t laugh as hard.

As Marsha Urban is the perfect repressed WASP in her Liberty print skirt and baby pink cardigan. Grogran is miscast as Jim. Grogan was blessed (or cursed, depending on how you look at it) with a caricature of a face, which almost forces him, like it or not, into broader comedy roles. Frankly, I would have reversed the genders and had Grogan play Urban’s old high school flame from hell while Tim Mangun (we’ll get to him in a moment) played her uptight husband. But its not my job to rewrite Durang.

Carlson is a very funny and talented actress. I want to see more of her soon, and not just in Mill City shows. Her Wanda is completely over the top, staggering in in enormous platform shoes and a leopard print skirt. Given the obviousness of the plot, Carlson could come down a notch or two and still be hilariously funny, but from her mouth I believed all of Wanda’s outrageous stories. It is not easy to take a caricature and turn her into a believable character.

Mangun comes in only very briefly in Wanda’s Visit, playing a waiter who tries to usurp the play in the end. He is not too impressive here, but in the second play of the evening, Daniel McIvor’s This Is A Play he really gets to strut his stuff.

This Is A Play features Urban, Carlson and Mangun as three actors performing a ridiculous play entitled Strangers Among Us in which three heads of lettuce play a central role. While you get the gist of the story of that play, what you hear them saying is their inner dialogue. “I enter with conviction,” Mangun proclaims at every entrance. “I am suddenly deeply sad that I have to wear such a terrible wig,” Carlson sniffles. You get the idea.

The cast really nails this one. It zips along, hilarious at every turn. Carlson is perfection as the Older Female Actor. Mangun is the not so macho macho man, and Urban is all flutter and fluff as the young ingénue. Okay, so those lettuces were really cabbages – cross-cultural casting is all the rage these days. This Is A Play alone is well worth the $5 ticket price.

It is good that Mill City has chosen for their opening gambit two pieces that obviously poke fun at the theatre itself. This is a wise choice for a group that cites love of the art as their very raison d’etre. I wish Mill City Productions a long and successful life in north Berkshire, and I look forward to their June production Living with Lady Macbeth.

Cheap Laughs, Free Eats: An Evening of One-Act Comedies will be performed April 16 & 17 at 8 p.m. at St. John’s Episcopal Church, 59 Summer Street in North Adams, and April 29 & 30 at 8 p.m. at Drury High School, 1130 South Church Street in North Adams. The show runs just over 90 minutes with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Tickets can be purchased at the door. For more information visit the Mill City Productions Web site.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2004

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