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Just Crisp Enough

ATC's 'Molly's Delicious' is a tasty, if insubstantial, little treat

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Playwright Craig Wright offers a tremendous gift to nasty critics, but then snatches it away.

Halfway through his play Molly's Delicious, a character explains the development of the apple with that name. Among its attributes, Molly's Delicious has the highest sugar content of all American apples. "Oh, boy," thinks the evil critic, squirming with malicious glee. "Now I can lead off my review with a wisecrack about the play's own ridiculously high sugar content."

Trouble is, Wright defies the expectations he raises early in the play and backs away from excessive sweetness and sentimentality. Not that Molly's Delicious offers much to chew over. Nor is it exceptionally juicy, nor does it leave much of an aftertaste, pleasant or otherwise. It's just a nice little gentle comedy whose greatest success is in not going wrong.

Molly's Delicious is one of three plays in Arizona Theatre Company's RepFest; in terms of cast size, it's the biggest show, but in other respects, it's quite simple. Lighting seems fairly static, and there's little use of sound. Kris Stone has designed a lovely, wide-open single set depicting the front yard and apple orchard of a rural home on the plains of Minnesota. The house is little more than an angled cutout off to stage left. Aside from several good props scattered about, the overall look evokes one of those tricolored plastic sheets people used to stick over their black-and-white TV screens to simulate color: a broad, green stage; a vast blue sky with fluffy clouds; from above, dozens of red-and-yellow apples dangling from long, leafy strings, like manna dropping from heaven, or maybe like little meteorites about to slam into our idyllic scene.

It's 1965 in little Pine City, Minn., and an older couple with the too-cute names Lindy and Cindy have taken in their niece, Alison, for the summer. Alison is young, pregnant, unmarried, strong-willed and optimistic. The optimism seems ill founded, though; every week, she writes to her boyfriend, Jerry, who is in the Coast Guard awaiting duty in Vietnam, but Jerry never writes back. So Cindy encourages a decent but awkward local fellow, Alec, to court Alison as a sort of Plan B.

Alec is in line to take over his father's mortuary, but he'd much rather buy a little farm and raise flowers. Alison initially wants nothing to do with Alec, but just as they're finally starting to hit it off, who do you suppose shows up in a smart sailor suit, engagement ring in hand?

This is the sort of unpretentious, low-stakes comedy that amateur troupes love to produce, and it's an odd choice for big ol' serious ATC, where ensemble comedy usually involves either spectacle or an underlying Important Message. Perhaps the attraction was the idea of producing something by Wright, who has written for Six Feet Under and Lost, cultish television series that refuse to reveal very much very soon. But Molly's Delicious, in comparison, is wholly conventional, even pat and perhaps a bit banal in its commonplace innocence. It's more like TV than what Wright actually writes for TV.

The play starts slowly. The opening scene for Lindy, Cindy and mortician-patriarch Ross (Stephen D'Ambrose, Barbara Kingsley and Roberto Guajardo, respectively, all exceptionally enjoyable, no matter what) introduces us to pleasant, rather dull people. Just as we begin to fear we're in for the equivalent of a dreadfully soporific Garrison Keillor monologue--good thing there's an undertaker on hand--things perk up with the appearance of Adelia Saunders as Alison. The character has real spark, which is rendered well by Saunders, who is adorable in the Drew Barrymore mold (though without the aggressive cuteness).

Joe Binder, too, makes a fine impression as Alec, just nerdy enough without falling into cliché. Binder has internalized and physicalized the character; just watch the childlike way he shifts his feet. Andrew Pastides' extroverted performance as Jerry is excellent as far as it goes; he has a boyish enthusiasm for crazy subjects reminiscent of Johnny Depp in Ed Wood. Yet director Aaron Posner hasn't spurred Pastides to draw out the character's ambiguity. Wright implies that Jerry is not entirely reliable; Jerry claims that he didn't write to Alison because he'd been shot in the leg, but later declares to someone that he hasn't seen any combat yet. And, judging from one outburst late in the show, his smooth exterior conceals something nastier within. But Posner and Pastides gloss over the darker aspects of Jerry's nature in order to make the story unambiguously heartwarming.

So in the end, we have a play named after an apple that can't really be described with apple metaphors: It's not wormy, and it's certainly not rotten to the core. Neither is it really ripe for the picking. Molly's Delicious is just an undemanding little comedy whose crisp sections outweigh the soft spots.

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