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A Comedy Assortment

Your local-theater roundup: Beowulf Alley shines; LTW does its best; and Invisible Theatre is doomed by lame material

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This week, Tucson theater is reduced to the B-list: bees, boards and bingo. One play concerns the family of an amateur beekeeper; another examines an even more dysfunctional family of thespians; and the third follows a group of friends to a bingo game.

All three plays are well-performed, and all are, to some extent, comedies, but the quality of the material does not in every case rise to the quality of the production.

The best total package comes from Beowulf Alley, which just opened Charlotte Jones' Humble Boy. Up to a point, it's a riff on Hamlet, set in contemporary, provincial, middle-class England, but the parallels are not exact. In Humble Boy, a young man comes home from school upon the death of his father, and learns that his mother has been carrying on with another man. (Not that I'm giving anything away, but in this play, unlike in Hamlet, the father is not a murder victim.) There's an Ophelia figure, the young man's discarded girlfriend; there's also a Polonius stand-in, a rather befuddled spinster neighbor. The young man even has a little suicide soliloquy, and by the time one character starts rattling off the scientific names of garden plants, you expect mad Ophelia herself to pop in with, "There's rosemary--that's for remembrance."

Humble Boy is more or less a comedy, though it's not a Hamlet spoof; Jones merely appropriates some of the Bard's preoccupations and gives them a modern spin. And the humor isn't the sort that generates many laughs along the way; it's something that causes you to smile a bit as it happens, and remember warmly once you leave the theater. Despite the Shakespearean conceits, the clever naming of the characters and Jones' careful attention to structure and pattern, this is an emotionally honest play about real family dynamics.

Not that Jones doesn't indulge in one writerly trick after another. Apparently inspired by Hamlet's puzzling over whether to be or not to be, Jones populates Humble Boy with multiple bees; the dead father was an amateur beekeeper. The household's queen bee is named Flora Humble; she's the stern, adulterous widow, played with steely hauteur by Cynthia Jeffery. The character seems rather limited early on, but by the end, Jones and Jeffery alike have developed Flora's previously unseen dimensions.

Similarly, Royce Sparks initially plays the Humble boy of the title, Felix, as a hesitant, rather slow fellow who stutters on words beginning with B, but gradually reveals the character's intellect and emotional depth. Elizabeth Leadon, as Felix's ex-girlfriend, Rosie, is all prickly stem in no immediate danger of wilting. Roxanne Harley gives a sweet rather than officious performance as the omnipresent neighbor (in the first scene, she's dressed like a refugee from a Beckett play, suggesting that she's as existentially adrift as the Humble family). Roger Owen is intentionally rough and menacing as Flora's lover.

All this, well-directed by Howard Allen, plays out on a lovely garden set designed by too many people to name here; costumer Lori Franklin-Garcia gets everything exactly right, starting with the unflatteringly tight, preppy white cricket outfit in which Felix first appears, a visual manifestation of how poorly Felix himself fits his surroundings.

Felix, the post-doc astrophysicist, may be hoping in vain that a theory of superstrings will bring the universe into elegant symmetry; surely, that seems unlikely in the Humble household. As presented by Charlotte Jones and the Beowulf Alley team, it's more of a teeming hive, producing equal measures of honey and sting.

Ken Ludwig's Moon Over Buffalo is the sort of backstage farce that actors can't resist; the leads, playing ham actors, get to indulge their worst theatrical instincts to good effect; and toward the end, everybody in the cast can enjoy participating in the sort of disastrous production that they otherwise dread.

Moon Over Buffalo is showing at Live Theatre Workshop, which almost always does a remarkable job of squeezing riotous farces into its small space. (Perhaps the close quarters help intensify the chaos.) This is a characteristically exuberant LTW production, even if playwright Ludwig doesn't quite deliver all that his premise promises.

It's 1953, and a second-rate acting couple, George and Charlotte Hay, are appearing at a Buffalo theater with their touring troupe, which is presenting Cyrano de Bergerac and Private Lives in repertory. Shortly before a matinee, Charlotte learns that George has impregnated the company's ingénue; George panics and plunges into a drinking binge, even while Hollywood director Frank Capra is reportedly on his way to see if George is fit as an emergency replacement in a big-time movie.

Meanwhile, there's sexual tension between the Hays' daughter, Rosalind, who has given up acting, and her ex-boyfriend, Howard, the troupe's stage manager. Part of the problem is that Rosalind has shown up with her new fiancé, a star-struck weatherman who somehow along the way is mistaken for Capra. Also present are Charlotte's stone-deaf mother and her would-be lover, the family lawyer.

Ultimately, some actors appear onstage at the matinee ready to launch into Private Lives, while others show up with the intention of doing Cyrano. This sequence ought to be funnier than it is; Ludwig isn't deft enough at the overlappings and contradictions to make it fully successful, but the LTW troupe works at the comedy valiantly.

One problem with farce is that, inevitably, characters will go slamming through multiple doors whether they need to or not; in Moon Over Buffalo, that's done to no real purpose other than to amp up the onstage energy. It's impossible to keep track of which door leads where, and there's no implicit comic danger when somebody rushes across a threshold.

Even so, director Stephen Frankenfield does all he can to keep his actors and their audience engaged. Michael Woodson is gloriously hammy as George, and Carlisle Ellis is a perfectly acerbic foil as Charlotte. Holli Henderson, as the daughter, brings great vivacity to the Cyrano/Private Lives mashup, and I wonder how she can play this scene, with Woodson's phallic fake nose going askew, without recalling a mishap she had several seasons ago with a slice of bread and a dildo strapped to another actor's forehead.

Eric Schumacher and Eric Anson are both fine as the young men in Rosalind's life; Roberta Streicher is a hoot as the deaf old lady, and the always excellent Dwayne Palmer is sadly underused as Charlotte's paramour. At least for once, Palmer is not playing an asshole, but then again, he is portraying a lawyer.

Until last week, I'd played bingo only once, in Portuguese. I was traveling with a group of journalists in Brazil, and early one Sunday evening, we found ourselves in a village on the outskirts of São Paolo. We inspected a little chapel that had hardly changed in 300 years, except for a fresh coat of whitewash and the installation of neon lights near the altar. We came out onto the dirt square to find the local priest leading the villagers in a game of bingo. The prize for the first round was a goat; for the second, a pig.

Many of the villagers were barely literate or numerate, and were having trouble marking their cards. We American journalists, despite our poor Portuguese, each adopted a player and helped him find the numbers as they were called. I didn't help my partner win anything, but it was a strangely rewarding experience--certainly more rewarding than sitting through the musical Bingo, being given a production far better than it deserves at Invisible Theatre.

The show, by Michael Heitzman, Ilene Reid and David Holcenberg, is set in a Veterans of Foreign Wars bingo hall, and revolves around three die-hard players: Patsy, clutching her highly ineffective good-luck charms; Honey, who has a history of scoring in more ways than one and who now has a crush on Sam the bingo caller; and the domineering Vern, so competitive that a minor slight during a game 15 years earlier led to a permanent rupture with her best friend. Now, that friend's daughter, a bingo novice named Alison, has come to the hall incognito to try to patch things up between Vern and her mom.

Pretty skimpy material, and it's not even enough to fill out this 90-minute show; the evening is padded with three rounds of audience-participation bingo, and a completely irrelevant number for Nurse Ratched from an imaginary musical based on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The other peppy songs are indistinguishable from one another, aside from one interlude in which Honey indulges in fantasies of white-trash romance. There's just not much going on here; the show has one big free space in the middle of its card.

The IT team does, however, make plenty of marks around the edges. Director Susan Claassen allows these characters some integrity, and gives them all some heart. And it's hard to dismiss any show that features both Betty Craig (who plays Vern) and Katherine Byrnes (the opening-night Alison; she'll share the role with Ellie Jepperson). They're wonderful singing actresses, and they're well-supported by the rest of the cast, especially Kylie Arnold as Patsy and Betsy Kruse-Craig as Honey.

The problem lies entirely with the show's writers and composer. They've taken what might have been a funny five-minute Carol Burnett sketch three decades ago and bloated it to the point at which it loses all humor and interest. Unless, that is, you're a paying member of the bingo subculture; one enthusiast in my row, chuckling at Patsy's superstitious antics, said to her companion, "This is exactly what it's like."

So if you're addicted to the game, like Vern and her pals, maybe you'll get more out of Bingo than I did. In contrast to that Brazilian bingo game, at the end of this round, I saw neither a pig nor a goat, but merely a dog.

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