One, Two, Three, Gag

With the Winter Olympics schussing NBC's must-watch sitcoms off the prime-time schedule, fans of Friends and Will & Grace might consider heading over to Kitchen Dog Theater for a fix. Rebound and Gagged, a new play by Aaron Ginsburg, sports all the elements of a successful TV situation comedy: attractive, single, WASPy young characters (all pals since college) angsting about growing "old" (they're 27); scads of jokes about dating and getting dumped; even a shabby-chic apartment living room as the set.

Sure, there are lots of laughs in Rebound. Lots of zippy pop tunes, too, interspersed between the many short, blink-and-miss-'em scenes. The play's witty and carefully selected soundtrack (compiled by director Tina Parker) not-so-subtly underscores the simple messages of the play--the Love Boat theme crooned before Act 1, J. Geils' "Love Stinks" after the breakup scene, Beck's "Loser" cued up for the lousy date--the way music burbles out at just the right time for those "special" moments on Felicity.

At Kitchen Dog's Black Box Theater at the MAC, every moment of this new play may not be special, but overall the production is skillfully produced and winningly acted by a cast of five performers so well-scrubbed, fit and handsome they look as if they might have cha-cha'd right out of a Gap ad. Add it all up, however, and there's still a major problem with Rebound and Gagged. It may be cute as a basket of speckled pups, but it isn't really a good piece of theater.

What it is, is a live re-enactment of a TV sitcom pilot script. A pretty good sitcom pilot script actually, but a not-very-good play (to see the difference, read an episode of Just Shoot Me in script form sometime and compare it with, say, Michael Frayn's comedy Noises Off or even Neil Simon's classic Barefoot in the Park).

Heck, if Ginsburg, a Southern Methodist University drama grad who now is out in Los Angeles working as a screenwriter, isn't pitching sitcom ideas to the Big Four networks, he's missing a ride on that gravy train. He has the TV comedy format down pat and certainly knows his way around setting up a laugh. He just doesn't have a clue how to translate that talent into writing for the stage. Rebound resounds with the sensibilities of television, not theater. Except for one visual joke about a giant sock puppet, there's not a single moment in the play that wouldn't translate better to the small screen.

Ginsburg, the same age as his Rebound characters, writes dialogue like someone who grew up believing in the cynical worldview of Seinfeld and friends and the loose sexual mores of Chandler Bing and Friends. He's caught up in the predictable one-two-three-punch! rhythm of 1990s TV comedies and the 60- to 80-second scenes those shows are built around. His characters may be named Kyle, Jase, Cooper, Herrick and Dana, but they're clearly barely disguised amalgams of Ross, Joey, Jerry, Elaine and George. Rebound's words sound so much like what we've heard and loved for a decade on NBC Thursday nights at 7, one keeps expecting a little peacock to flap across the stage announcing what's up next.

Some of the lines in Rebound are hilarious, but only if you haven't watched TV much in the last, oh, 30 years. Ginsburg assumes his audience either won't notice or care, but apparently he has spent a lifetime engrossed in the tube, filing away for future recycling some memorable TV bits.

A little too memorable, it turns out.

Rueing his breakup with his idealized girlfriend Dana, love-bruised Kyle (David Goodwin) whines, "I'm haunted by her laundry." Followed, of course, by the predictable fondling of her purple "scrunchy" and the sniffing of her little left-behind T-shirt, a poignant moment of romantic nostalgia originated by the Ross Geller character on Friends on March 27, 1997, in an episode titled "The One With the Tiny T-Shirt."

One of the funniest, but most unoriginal, running gags in Rebound and Gagged has Cooper (the elfin Leah Spillman) fitted out in a series of hideous bridesmaid's dresses as she stiletto-heels her way from wedding to wedding, watching her sorority sisters walk down the aisle. All of them will get "real jobs, minivans and sons named Dylan," she complains. And all she has is a crummy job as a gallery receptionist (wasn't that Charlotte's gig on Sex & the City?) and a closetful of frocks that look like pieces of a Rose Bowl float.

The ugly bridesmaid's dress gag is a reliable comedy chestnut that can be traced back to 1972, when Mary Tyler Moore as plucky Mary Richards agreed to be a maid of honor wearing an enormous hoopskirt bedecked with giant floppy bows. Fast-forward to 1994 and the film Four Weddings and a Funeral, which dredged up the same joke for its take on a group of friends getting married off one by one. This time the hideous pink Bo Peep gown shows up on an unhappy single girl who's so rushed to get to the church, she accidentally leaves the back of the dress tucked in her panties. That one was reprised on Friends in 1996, when Rachel, in a bridesmaid's dress as pink as calamine, swanned down the aisle with her red undies in full dorsal view. (It's not just budding playwrights who steal gags; the professionals do it, too.)

OK, funny's funny, and why bust on a young playwright like Ginsburg who's just beginning to earn his chops? Well, a stage isn't a TV screen. Our expectations for TV fare already are lower than a snake's kneecaps these days, diminished by half-baked sitcoms like Yes, Dear and Dharma & Greg that drag on season after season. If we happen to run across anything mildly original and amusing when we light on a channel for more than 30 seconds, we're grateful. And if Friends wants to rehash an old MTM joke, it's a sort of nudge-nudge-wink homage to a TV-comedy ancestor. But our expectations are and should be greater for the theater, where, after all, the audience pays for tickets, is held captive for a few hours and can't fast-forward through the boring parts. It might be more forgivable for a young playwright to blatantly derive his comedic material from Stoppard or Shakespeare. But it cheapens the whole notion of what theater is to ask a theatergoer to buy a ticket and sit on a hard chair for warmed-over Seinfeld jokes delivered by unknowns. At least sitcoms last only 22 minutes. Rebound and Gagged is 2 1/2 hours of two-minute scenes.

The cast does deserve a nod for doing a tip-top job with what they're given. The five actors in this show play their lines smartly and quickly, maintaining that laid-back, sitcommy style that lets characters deliver jokes while slumped on a futon cramming chips in their mouths.

David Goodwin is terrific as nice guy Kyle, the dumpee who gets over his hurt only to fall stupidly in love with his galpal roomie, the lovely Cooper. Goodwin, a sort of stringier version of a young Kevin Bacon, holds the jumpier scenes together with his direct, no-frills performance. Leah Spillman makes Cooper more important than Ginsburg's writing wants her to be, but she's blessed with lively energy and a quirky, offbeat beauty. As Jase, the slovenly goof Cooper calls "a 5-year-old with facial hair," Andy Mangin makes a lovable mutt into an unlikely prince charming. Max Hartman transitions seamlessly into a number of other men's roles, including Herrick, the college dweeb-turned-success who throws off the equilibrium of his old friends with his newfound sense of suave. Playing all of Kyle's dates, ranging from a rock club chickie to Dana the Dumper, Laurel Whitsett is a whippet with a kitschy grin.

They all seem to know they're acting in a situation comedy that has accidentally found itself playing, not to four cameras on a soundstage in Burbank, but to 50 people in a tiny theater near downtown Dallas. They have a good time anyway, and so does the audience. And afterward, just like the folks who sit in bleachers to watch weekly tapings of network comedies, those who've seen Rebound and Gagged and liked it will head to their cars relaxed and smiling, perhaps making a mental note to tune in next week to see what happens.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner