Lethargic Farce Needs a Jolt

Renowned author and philanderer, Archer Connaught, is feared dead in a plane crash.  However he not only returns not dead, but with a new young love that he wishes to marry.  When Archer asks his wife, Josie, for a divorce, she reveals that they were never really married to begin with.  Instead of making things easier, things actually become more difficult since the world believes Connaught to be married.  The unwinding of this knotty problem is the story of James Elward’s Best of Friends, currently playing at the Bellevue Little Theatre.

Elward’s script actually begins with quite a bit of promise.  The plot is ideal for a good farce and the play does have some zippy wordplay and pointed zingers.  Unfortunately, the script runs out of gas by the end of the play with an unsatisfactory ending and non-endings to the story arcs of several characters.

The secret to a good farce is energy and I fear I may have caught this cast on an off night as the energy was sorely lacking in tonight’s production.  The pace had the consistency of glue and the cast really needed to tighten up their cues.  Volume was also an issue as a number of the performers did not project enough.

Emma Rasmussen makes her directing debut at the BLT with this production.  A rather new face on the directing scene, Ms Rasmussen demonstrates great potential with this show as there are several moments that truly sing.  However, some potentially humorous bits got overlooked and some beats needed to be dug into more deeply.  I also thought there were a couple of bland performances that needed some work as well as some distracting pieces of business that needed to be eliminated as it drew focus away from speaking actors.

Brian Witcher was quite an impressive find as he makes his BLT debut in the role of Archer Connaught.  He expertly walked that fine line of keeping Connaught unlikable, but still charming.  Connaught was an unhappy teacher who managed to hit it big with a novel.  Once he got money, he abandoned his family and nursed an addiction to women.  An addiction he seemed to be quite proud of.  Witcher is a highly animated performer with a knack of finding just the right turn of phrase and appropriate gestures at all of the right times.  As oily as this character was, Witcher managed to make me feel a little pity for him as he tried to fix his numerous broken relationships.

Janet Macklin does a solid job in the role of Josie Connaught, Archer’s maybe wife.  Ms Macklin has a grand gift for underplaying which worked very well for the most part.  Ms Macklin’s Josie comes off extremely loyal, at first, sticking by a husband who is at home very rarely and tolerating his infidelities.  That all changes once she reveals the lack of marriage.  That revelation also changes the tone of her underplaying as now everything she says is tinged with uncertainty leaving one wondering where the truth starts and ends.

Despite the overall good work, Ms Macklin does need to keep her projection up as it waxed and waned.  I also thought her confrontations with Archer’s lover needed to have a bit more edge to them.

Catherine Deluca’s turn as Kate Connaught seemed a bit listless and wooden.  She internalized a lot of the anger towards her father, Archer, due to his shabby treatment of the family.  That was not necessarily a bad choice, but I didn’t hear any variance in her delivery.  Ms Deluca also needed to react more when others were talking and speak up when she spoke.

Likewise, I considered Marcus Benzel’s portrayal of Archer’s son, Merrill, to be a bit one note in nature.  Benzel’s Merrill was a whiny, entitled lout, but he needed to nuance his delivery.  I do applaud him for bringing great energy to the role.  He actually seems a bit over the top which is not a bad thing for a farce.  But since he was the only performer doing so, he either needs to tone his performance down somewhat or the rest of the cast needs to raise their energy level to match his.

Melissa Jarecke brought a welcome jolt of juice with her rendition of the sardonic literary agent, Hazel Dunn.  She had some of the strongest scenes in the show and her dialogues with Archer and Josie sparked with vitality.  Alexander Hamilton is splendid in the small role of the hapless attorney, Felix Heckaday, who gets caught up in the lunacy of the Connaught family.  Tom Steffes brings terrific comedy relief as the drunken juggler/Justice of the Peace, Mr. Bledsoe.

This show did have quite a few strong technical aspects.  Joey Lorincz continues to impress as one of the best set designers in the city with a gorgeous study complete with rich green hues, a crackling fireplace, and well appointed library.  I loved Pam Matney’s sound design as it consisted of some of my favorite classic rock numbers.  The actors were also well costumed by Leah Skorupa-Mezger.

At the end of the night, I felt there was a truly great ensemble performance trying to break out of this show.  With a much needed dose of energy and some fine tuning of performances, I believe this cast can overcome the slight weaknesses of the script and have a great laugher on their hands.

Best of Friends continues at Bellevue Little Theatre through Feb 28.  Performances are at 7:30pm Fri-Sat and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets cost $18 for adults, $16 for seniors, and $10 for students with proper ID.  Reservations can be made by calling 402-291-1554 between the hours of 10am-4:30pm Mon-Sat.  This show does deal with some adult subject matter and is not recommended for children.  Bellevue Little Theatre is located at 203 E Mission Ave in Bellevue, NE.

You’ll Feel this One ‘In The Bones’

A young man dies.  What are the factors that led to his death?  What are the consequences of his passing?  How do his family and loved ones cope now that he is gone?  These are the questions posed and answered in the drama, In The Bones by Cody Daigle-Orians, currently performing at SNAP! Productions.

Though the theatre season has just begun, SNAP! stakes an early claim to this year’s best drama with a tip top script that fuels one of the finest pieces of ensemble acting that I have seen in many a season.  Daigle-Orians’ story manages to strike all the right notes at precisely the right times.  It is serious where it must be.  Funny where it should be.  Heartbreaking where it needs to be.  M Michele Phillips’ direction is absolutely flawless.  She has missed no beat, maximizes each moment to its fullest potential, and has produced a bumper crop of fantastic performances from this amazingly talented cast.

In the hands of a lesser actor, the role of Luke could easily be treated as a throwaway part.  But Eric Grant-Leanna gives one of the best performances of his career in the role of the young soldier whose death drives this story.

The play opens on the day of Luke’s death and from there goes back and forth through time through the use of pre-filmed vignettes for the past and stage acting for the present and future scenes.  Grant-Leanna’s natural, boyish charm makes him ideal for the role of Luke.  Clearly, this young man is the glue that held his family and loved ones together.  One cannot help, but be infected by Luke’s sweet innocence.  He’s fun and a bit of a prankster and seems fixated on getting people to say nice things for his videos.

But Luke also carries some heavy burdens.  He is a closeted homosexual who has finally decided to reveal to his mother that his “renter” is actually his long term boyfriend.  Luke is also a soldier who has done 2 tours of duty in Afghanistan.  On one of those tours, he made a choice which haunts him until his death.  Grant-Leanna’s delivery during the more serious moments is nothing short of mesmerizing and some of the best scenes in the play are when Luke is watching the video footage he has shot where Grant-Leanna’s clean and clear facial expressions tell you all the story you will need.

Sally Neumann Scamfer is splendid in the role of Dee, Luke’s mother.  Through Ms Neumann Scamfer’s wonderful storytelling abilities, you will know the angst and anger of a woman unable to cope with the death of her son and unwilling to accept his sexuality.  At points, Ms Neumann Scamfer’s Dee will seem like a heartless shrew as she, more or less, forces Luke’s lover out of their home before disavowing his existence, makes her daughter feel like she ranks a distant second to her dead son, and nastily (sometimes hilariously) snipes at her sister.

Then, just as easily, Ms Neumann Scamfer will show Dee’s better qualities such as her kindness and witty sense of humor.  Her Dee is not a bad person, merely broken and devastated that so many things were left unsaid with Luke.

Dan Luethke is sympathetic as Ben, Luke’s partner.  At the play’s beginning he is already a crushed man as his slightly bent shoulders and soft-spoken delivery reveal his immense sadness over the loss of his lover.  As the years go by in the show, Ben’s sadness transforms into anger not only due to Luke’s demise, but because his part in Luke’s life is essentially erased by Luke’s family, especially Dee.  This anger could easily be overplayed, but Luethke keeps it perfectly real.  It’s neither too much nor too little.

Luethke is just as strong in the pre-filmed vignettes where he plays Ben as a much happier man with a dry wit and a willingness to play with Luke and his sister, Chloe, who was aware of their relationship.  My only criticism about Luethke’s performance is for him to be a little more natural with his gestures.  In tonight’s performance, some of his hand movements seemed rehearsed.

Corie Grant-Leanna (the real life sister of Eric Grant-Leanna) is sweet and vulnerable as Chloe.  The casting of a real life brother and sister was a stroke of casting genius as it lent gravitas and power to Ms Grant-Leanna’s interpretation of Chloe.  All of the emotions she feels towards Luke are so very, very real and natural.  You’ll be brought along for the ride as you share her pain at Luke’s death, her uncertainty when Luke decides to reveal his sexuality to their mother, her skittishness as she tries to connect with an old army friend of Luke’s, and her anger with her mother who just cannot move on from Luke’s death.  Ms Grant-Leanna does need to put just a tiny bit more power into her projection as she sounded a touch breathy, but this did not take away from her beautiful performance.

Stephanie Anderson kept the audience in stitches with her energetic and raucous rendition of Kate, Luke’s aunt.  Ms Anderson easily handles the comedy of Kate with well aimed zingers and imbues Kate with a strong zest for life.  But Ms Anderson also takes care of Kate’s more serious moments with equal grace.  A meeting between Kate and Ben a year after Luke’s death and a heart to heart talk with Dee at the play’s climax will have your heart aching.

David Mainelli returns to the stage after a four year hiatus and has not lost a step.  Mainelli plays Kenny, a friend of Luke’s from the army.  Mainelli makes for a fine Southern gentleman as his Kenny is laid back and easy going, but a little persistent as he constantly tries to contact Chloe to learn why she was trying to get hold of him.  He is also thoughtful and intelligent and has a wonderful monologue towards the end of the play where he discusses his thoughts on his faith and marriage which I consider the most thought provoking moment of the play and was enhanced by Mainelli’s straightforward, sincere delivery.

Aside from the tremendous acting and directing, this show was equally brilliant on the technical side.  Ronnie Wells’ simple, broken wall set accurately depicts the brokenness caused by Luke’s death.  Joshua Mullady’s light design is well suited to the shifting moods of the play.  Daena Schweiger’s visual media and sound design, especially her music choices, bolster this play admirably.

A young man dies.  His death means different things to different people.  I do not know what Luke’s death will mean to you after watching In The Bones, but I do know that you will be in for an epic night of theatre and a drama that will rank among this season’s best.

In The Bones runs at SNAP! Productions through September 13.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 8pm and Sundays at 6pm.  The closing performance on Sept 13 will be at 2pm.  Tickets cost $15 for adults and $12 for students, seniors, T.A.G. members, and the military.  Thursday night shows cost $10.  Due to the subject matter and coarse language, In The Bones is not recommended for children.  SNAP! Productions is located at 3225 California St in Omaha, NE.