Are sunspots making shows go haywire in local theaters? Is Mercury in retrograde? Two productions at neighborhood playhouses opened last week, or tried to, and they proved that old adage true again: Dying is easy; comedy is hard.
Theatre Three has started its 51st season with Wild Oats, a play by SMU grad James McLure, who died last February at age 59 with a couple of good scripts to his credit. Wild Oats isn't one of them. Adapted from a 1791 relic called Wild Oats; or, the Strolling Gentleman by Irish playwright John O'Keeffe, the McLure version, reviewed at a preview, moves the thing to the Wild West as we know it from F Troop, Blazing Saddles and Looney Tunes starring Foghorn Leghorn. What it could use is more Deadwood. Instead, it's two hours of dead wood.
Actor Andy Baldwin is a strong choice for the lead in a comedy — he's the star of many of Circle Theatre's fine farces — but in Wild Oats he has to work himself into a lather trying to wring laughs from a leaden play and among a group of actors so wrong for their roles you wonder why they got the parts. Baldwin plays Jack Rover, a Shakespearean actor on the lam from some evil somebody-or-others. Holed up in Muleshoe, Texas, he switches identities with a runaway rich kid named Harry Thunder (played as gayer than a bowl of feathers by James Chandler) whose father, cavalry leader Croftus Thunder (Gregory Lush, doing a Colonel Angus drawl), is looking for him for reasons that hardly matter. The plot is a Western spaghetti of knotty relationships.
Wild Oats continues through September 10 at Theatre Three. Call 214-871-3300. The Gingerbread Lady continues through September 11 at Richardson Theatre Centre. Call 972-699-1130.
There's a pretty gal in the mix, an Annie Oakley type played with a decent amount of spunk by Lee Jamison, and a funny saloon slattern (Sheila Rose) who keeps leading gunslingers up the stairs to her boo-dwar. The audience is encouraged to boo the mean landlord (Chris Messersmith) and hiss the ass-pinching minister (Terry Vandivort) who runs the Church of Christian Sufferin' and Denial. Speaking of sufferin', the audience also is asked, at the top of the second act, to participate in a sing-along to "Red River Valley."
With all the bad acting, hissing, booing and caterwauling going on, you'll think you're at Pocket Sandwich Theatre, where this sort of thing is part of their melodrama evenings. The difference is, at Pocket you're allowed to throw popcorn at the actors. During Wild Oats, it's tempting to look around for things to hurl at the stage. Handbags, shoes, seats. Something to make them stop. But no, they keep on doing mistimed spit takes and mugging it up on dialogue where the big joke ends with the words "cactus interruptus."
All the hallmarks of a bad play, and it's a really bad play to start with, are on display in Wild Oats: flat energy (though cases of Red Bull would hardly help), terrible accents (actor Micah Figueroa tries for an Irish brogue on top of accented English and speaks so slowly he's feloniously unfunny) and wildly uneven acting styles (some do farce, some do vaudeville and some just barely manage to walk and talk convincingly). Director Bruce R. Coleman, whose work at Theatre Three is even worse than his worst stuff for Uptown Players, also has designed the costumes. Whatever the women in this production did to tick him off, he's taken it out on their outfits, which make them all look bilious.
The best performance in this shoddy shoot-'em-up is by the saloon pianist (Pam Holcomb-McLain, alternating with Erin McGrew). She provides the rumbling dum-de-dum-dum chords and old-time rink-a-tink music under the action. Give a big hand to these little ladies. Having to sit through every minute of more than one performance of Wild Oats must feel like a bumpy stagecoach ride through the hinges of Hades.
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The Gingerbread Lady, one of Neil Simon's lesser comedies, tried to open the other night at Richardson Theatre Centre. Things did not go well. Actors were shaky on lines and cues in the first act and the leading lady, Rachael Lindley, playing a just-out-of-rehab singer reuniting with a teenage daughter, seemed unsteady and unfocused.
Lindley, who's also the artistic director at this community stage, has done good work in the past, so something was obviously off. She was quick and amusingly bitter in the recent comedy The Kitchen Witches alongside Lise Alexander, who's also in Gingerbread Lady, and was scary as hell as Annie Wilkes in the stage version of Misery at RTC several years ago.
At intermission on opening night of Gingerbread Lady, stage manager Melissa Hennessey announced that a backstage emergency meant the show would not go on. Patrons were invited to return to a future performance gratis. I learned later that Lindley, complaining of chest pain, had fainted after her last exit in the first act and was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital. In an email the next day, saying she was "mortified" about what happened, Lindley explained that she was suffering from dehydration and exhaustion and was hoping that after a few days' rest, she could go back to the show.
Here's hoping Lindley and her Gingerbread rise again at one of the suburbs' friendliest little theaters.