Saturday, March 24, 2007

opening-night review of *Relative Chaos: The Plumb-Nutts Family Reunion*

at CenterStage through April 14

OK, so I’m the Big Bad Wolf of local theater reviewers, and I may have said a disparaging thing or two about past shows at CenterStage.
But I’m here to tell ya, folks, that the dinner theater on West First Avenue may have lighted upon its formula for success: interactive dinner theater.
You chat with friends, you drink some wine — next thing you know, some loudmouth actor is sticking a camcorder in your face, crying drunkenly on your shoulder, pulling you into some kind of party game (like catching walnuts with toilet plungers — I caught two! After two glasses of wine!)
And it’s involving and escapist and fun (mostly — some of the comic bits missed).
Upon entering into the world of Jean Kavanagh’s *Relative Chaos,* you’re seated at a family reunion with either the Plumbs or the Nutts, and they have you fill out a 25-item questionnaire (sample: “Would you pay someone to make sure that Verizon guy can’t hear you now?”) as an ice-breaker between you and your table mates. (They may be your “relatives” now, but five minutes ago, they were total strangers.)
But the best fun lies in entering into the improvisation games with the actors. When an actor strolls by your table and starts trading improvised jests with you, reality slips away in a form of structured play for adults. It’s time to leave the spreadsheets and blueprints at work, because CenterStage is providing grown-ups with a sandbox for finding the kid inside again.
For most of the first two-thirds of this interactive show, I was having as much fun (and felt as thoroughly involved) as at any show I’ve attended in quite awhile. (Things go downhill during some scripted musical skits later on, but it’s nothing that playwright Kavanagh can’t cure if she’s willing to slice an hour out of an over-long show. But there’s a very funny, very entertaining play in here.)
Some examples of interacting with the cast from my experience (your mileage may vary):
Erin Wissing as a tree-hugging PETA activist, so ardent while pressing a spaying/neutering pamphlet into my hand that I signaled the server for another drink.
Distant cousin Maude (Ginny Isbelle) informing me she really, really hates beets — this was from the questionnaire — and would like to spend some time on a desert island with Bill Clinton “because he’d be so entertaining.”
I try heckling Jamie Flanery, who’s playing a drunken lout named Pete. He’s going from table to table, complaining to everyone within earshot “about that guy with an earring over there.’ “You’re Plumb out of line,” he snorts, working the crowd.
Hey, Pete, have you ever heard of “intervention”? How about “abstinence”?
Later on, I overhear Flanery as Pete complaining to his father Walt (Ron Ford, the addle-brained patriarch) about “that troublemaker” in the crowd. And that troublemaker was me. I was getting the hang of this!
It’s hard to know when to cut in, when to end the bit. (Just ask the improv artists at Blue Door and ComedySportz.) But a real sense of team play emerges: You’re in this with the actors, and that sensation overcomes a lot of criticisms about how community-theater this bit felt or how under-rehearsed that segment seemed. Because with a show like this, we are the community: We’re all in it together, creating an escapist illusion just for one night.
And that goes well with the pea salad, ham, garlic potatoes, corn with red peppers and strawberry shortcake that I finally remembered to devour even though I’d shown up hungry for this family reunion. I was having so much fun, I forgot to eat.
Hey, psychic moonbat lady (Judi Pratt, with an endearing Agnes Moorhead as Endora in *Bewitched* vibe): Can I have another of those moonstones?
“They’ll create double the peaceful aura for you, my dear.”
Screw the aura. I just want to ward off that Pete guy (Jamie Flanery, playing a drunken lout). He brings a lot of negative energy into the room, you know?
Would I like a second glass of wine? I sure would. My side of the room is starting to take sides. “Nutts! Nutts! Nutts!” we chant. …

It’s a serious miscalculation to include so many obviously rehearsed (and not improvised) sketch-comedy spoof musical numbers in the show. There were spoofs of *The Beverly Hillbillies* and Marvin Gaye and the Eagles that were, frankly, embarrassing to watch.
The fun of a night like this, you see, has to do with *commedia dell’arte*-style improvisation: Actors have a character note or two, a scene with a few scripted lines, but then they try to reach right through that reality/fantasy barrier, grab us by the lapels and shake us till we laugh. But that’s the problem with the obviously staged musical skits: After the actors have worked hard for half an hour to create a merger of illusion and reality, along comes some hokey pre-set business to remind that for the next three minutes, it’s not that anything could happen — only this dumb prearranged thing is going to happen.

*Plumb-Nutts* has at least one too many endings and a final dance number that was embarrassingly bad.
But at one point, Flanery, while stumbling around “drunk” as Pete the party boy, fell down — hard — all the way to the floor. Diners leaned forward — did he need a help up? “It’s OK,” he improvised as he struggled to his feet, “I do this for a living.”
And he was. They all were. *The Plumb-Nutts Family Reunion* merges playtime with everyday living in an intriguing and funny way. Even better, perhaps it’s pointing the way toward a kind of theater with which CenterStage could improve its standard of living.


For a much-revised version of this review (Bobo has nearly three times this much in notes, and many more examples to cite, and some pondering of interactive reality/illusion blurring to do), see the Thursday, March 29 *Inlander.*

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