Teenage nerd reinvents herself in spirited British comedy

“How to Build a Girl” publicity still
Dolly Wilde, aka Joanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein), shares a musical moment with rock star John Kite (Alfie Allen) in How to Build a Girl. (Photo by Sven Arnstein/IFC Films)

By Richard Ades

Reading is usually an entertaining pastime, but for English teen Johanna Morrigan it’s a road map to dissatisfaction. That’s because she suspects her life will never live up to those of her literary heroines. For one thing, no Prince Charming ever shows up to save her from her humdrum existence.

“I do not think my adventure starts with a boy,” Johanna (Booksmart’s Beanie Feldstein) concludes early on. “I think it starts with me.”

This establishes the theme for How to Build a Girl, a comedy based on Caitlin Moran’s semiautobiographical novel about a girl bent on reinventing herself. Set in the early ’90s, it follows 16-year-old Johanna as she seeks to turn her writing talent into a fulfilling career. The quest eventually leads her to a dark corner of journalism in which she savages struggling bands as a poison-pen rock critic.

(Personal note: This portion of her saga struck a few autobiographical chords for me, as I long ago turned my love of writing into a career in journalism. And though I never became a rock critic, I worked with one who became famous for his devilishly nasty putdowns. Back to the movie.)

Directed by Coky Giedroyc from a script by Moran and John Niven, How to Build a Girl mixes witty invention with infectious exuberance. It quickly introduces us to Johanna’s large family, which includes her musically frustrated dad (Paddy Considine), her worn-out mom (Sarah Solemani) and her supportive gay brother (Laurie Kynaston)—as well as a dozen or so portraits of historic and fictional figures that regularly come to life to serve as her confidants and cheerleaders.

Johanna’s big break comes when she interviews for work with a London-based pop-culture magazine and lands a freelance gig thanks to sheer pluck and determination. Remaking herself with the help of a new name (Dolly Wilde), an eccentric wardrobe and red hair dye, she’s soon having the time of her life raving about the rock scene she’s never known before. She even has her first crush after meeting soulful singer John Kite (Alfie Allen). But then she makes a fangirl misstep and is able to salvage her career only by skewering the music scene she once praised.

Heading up the strong cast, Feldstein gives Johanna an indomitable spirit and a generally convincing Midlands accent. Behind the scenes, Oli Julian plays an indispensable role as composer of the flick’s original music.

Despite its inventiveness, the script eventually leads its heroine into a clichéd predicament, while the finale leaves us with a saccharine aftertaste. For the most part, though, Johanna’s makeover journey is a delightful and inspiring ride.

Rating: 4 starts (out of 5)

How to Build a Girl (rated R) opens May 8 at VOD outlets.

 

Privilege is gently punctured in warm and witty ‘Late Night’

Late Night Writers
Talk-show host Katherine Newberry (Emma Thompson) has a rare meeting with her writing staff in Late Night. (Photos courtesy of Amazon Studios)

By Richard Ades

While appearing on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert recently to talk up her new flick, Emma Thompson described her character as a woman who serves as a late-night TV host. “So it’s basically science fiction,” she joked.

Yes, Late Night does exist in a kind of alternative universe where a woman has crashed the white boys’ club of hosts such as Colbert, Fallon and Kimmel. Even so, the script by co-star Mindy Kaling doesn’t ignore the special hurdles faced by women—as well as racial and ethnic minorities—in the entertainment industry. In fact, it makes salient points on that very issue. The only reason it doesn’t come off as a political diatribe is that Kaling is such a nimble and witty writer.

It also doesn’t hurt that Kaling is a funny and appealing actor. As aspiring joke writer Molly Patel, she functions as the warm, brown-skinned counterpoint to Thompson’s frosty, white-privileged Katherine Newberry.

The story opens as Katherine is forced to face a painful surprise. New network boss Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan) tells Katherine that because she’s been letting her show languish, she will soon be replaced by a new host. Adding salt to the proud feminist’s wounds, the replacement will be a male comedian who trades in sexist, frat-boy humor.

An even more shocking critique comes from Katherine’s invalid husband, Walter (John Lithgow), who tells her the show hasn’t been good in years. When Katherine asks why he didn’t tell her sooner, Walter says he didn’t think she cared. But since she obviously does, he advises her to fight back.

Late Night Mindy
Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling) eagerly heads to her new job as a writer on her favorite TV show.

In no time, Katherine begins taking what for her are drastic measures. She actually begins to spend time with her all-white, all-male writing staff, and she counters the charge that she’s out of touch by ordering a “diversity hire.” Thanks to luck and good timing, Molly ends up being that hire despite the fact that she has no experience writing comedy.

What the former chemical-plant worker does bring to the job are (1) experience in “quality control” and (2) her longtime love of Katherine’s show. She puts both to work by pointing out the reasons for the show’s decline, including Katherine’s reliance on stale humor and her refusal to liven things up by venturing outside the studio. Since Molly’s critiques stomp on her boss’s and co-workers’ egos, she only succeeds in increasing their resistance to this eager newcomer.

Fans of David Letterman’s final years on The Late Show might recall that he fell into some of the same lazy patterns as Katherine, recycling old jokes and staying chained to his desk. Unfortunately, Letterman didn’t have someone like Molly, who eventually convinces Katherine to take a chance on edgier material. But it all seems for naught when the comic, like Letterman before her, is embroiled in a scandal that poses a new threat to her career.

Director Nisha Ganatra, whose previous work has mostly been on TV, gives her two stars ample opportunity to flaunt their talents. Thompson wins laughs as a flinty celeb who fires anyone who rubs her the wrong way, while her scenes with Lithgow’s ailing Walter pay emotional dividends. And Kaling is lovably relatable as Molly, whether she’s a fangirl who swoons in her boss’s presence or a self-doubter who still manages to respond to rejection with plucky determination.

The result is not quite a slam dunk, as things do get a bit contrived and message-y at times. Mostly, though, Late Night succeeds in delivering its societal critiques discretely amid torrents of laughter.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Late Night (rated R) opens June 14 at theaters nationwide.

Sequel continues revealing pets’ quirks, fears and adventures

Secret Life
New York pooches Duke (Eric Stonestreet, left) and Max (Patton Oswalt) visit a farm in The Secret Life of Pets 2.

By Richard Ades

Max and the rest of his furry friends are back in The Secret Life of Pets 2. Like its 2016 predecessor, the animated flick is an affectionate and occasionally funny look at the dogs, cats and assorted other animals who share our homes.

The sequel finds a few things have changed for Max, the good-natured mutt who shares a New York apartment with his beloved human, Katie (Ellie Kemper), and a giant-sized canine named Duke (Eric Stonestreet). For one, Max is now voiced by Patton Oswalt, replacing Louis C.K. (for obvious reasons).

A more substantial change happens after Katie meets and marries the amiable Chuck (Pete Holmes) and subsequently gives birth to a mischievous imp named Liam (Henry Lynch). Max has heard tales of how children ruin pets’ lives, and the stories seem to come true when Liam starts using him as a toy-slash-punching bag. But as the toddler grows, Max learns to love him—a little too much, in fact. He spends so much time worrying about the child’s welfare that he develops a nervous scratching habit and has to be fitted with the dreaded “cone.”

Again directed by Chris Renaud, the sequel continues the original’s lush visuals, depicting NYC with a series of warm-toned cityscapes and later turning the countryside into a verdant wonderland. Written by Brian Lynch, who co-wrote the original, it again builds to an action-packed finale. The main difference is that the original told basically one story, while the new film separates itself into a trio of concurrent tales before bringing the characters back together at the end.

In the main thread, we follow along as Max’s family pays a visit to Chuck’s uncle out in the country, where a tough farm dog (Harrison Ford) pushes the visitor to conquer his fears. Back in the city, Max’s Pomeranian friend, Gidget (Jenny Slate), has been left in charge of his favorite squeeze toy and is horrified when she accidentally lets it bounce into an apartment full of hostile cats. Determined to get it back, she asks neighbor cat Chloe (Lake Bell) for advice on how to pass as a feline. (First lesson: Cats don’t chase balls.)

In the most outlandish tale, a newly arrived dog named Daisy (Tiffany Haddish) is determined to rescue a tiger from a traveling circus and its abusive trainer (Nick Kroll). She enlists the help of the once-villainous Snowball (Kevin Hart), who is now living with a doting owner and fancies himself a bunny superhero.

As a result of its trio of stories, Pets 2 seems more scattered than its predecessor, but the characters are as lovable as always. Among the voice actors, Haddish mainly does an impression of herself, but most give their characters distinctive personalities.

What is the film’s prime audience? The later mayhem, complete with homages to kung fu and Three Stooges flicks, will mainly appeal to younger viewers. However, the gentle jokes about the quirks and neuroses of our animal pals should appeal to adults as well—especially those with pets of their own.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

The Secret Life of Pets 2 (PG) opens June 6 or 7 at theaters nationwide.

Beloved comedy duo tries for a comeback

By Richard Ades

stan & ollie
John C. Reilly (left) as Oliver Hardy and Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel in Stan & Ollie

Stan & Ollie is an entertaining story for all viewers, but it’s a special treat for anyone who’s seen old Laurel and Hardy flicks. Besides being physically transformed to look like these iconic comedians, stars John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan do a great job of incorporating the pair’s mannerism into their portrayals.

Reilly’s Oliver Hardy is especially spot-on, right down to his eye-rolling exasperation at his friend’s antics. Coogan’s Stan Laurel is slightly less recognizable, but that’s partly because he’s revealed to be the duo’s leader, the hard-working guy who creates their routines and arranges their business deals. It seems the real-life Laurel had little in common with the simpleton he played in films and onstage.

Screenwriter Jeff Pope bases the story on an actual tour Laurel and Hardy undertook in the UK in 1953, a few years after their cinematic career had faded to black.

We learn that Laurel is convinced the tour will spark a comeback by helping them land a deal to film their own take on the Robin Hood legend. In order to accomplish this, however, he and Hardy have to prove they can still attract and amuse the paying public. Unfortunately, tour organizer Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones) has booked them in second-rate theaters that garner little attention. Only after they agree to take part in publicity stunts that recreate old comedy bits do they begin to catch fire with the British public.

Director Jon S. Baird lends a gentle and loving touch to the tale, whether it delves into nostalgic comedy or bittersweet drama. Flashbacks reveal that a contract dispute some 16 years in the past nearly broke up the team, sparking resentments that still linger. Hardy’s health is another concern. He always presented a rotund contrast to his thin partner, and he’s gained even more weight over the years. The grueling tour proves to be a challenge, first to his stamina and eventually to his very existence.

Every cast member delivers a well-crafted portrayal, even in minor roles such as a doting fan or a hotel clerk who marvels that the pair is still performing. In a welcome addition to the tale’s second half, spouses Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson) and Ida Kitseva Laurel (Nina Arianda) arrive from America to reunite with their hubbies. The Russian-born Ida, a frankly outspoken former performer, is particularly amusing.

For Laurel and Hardy fans, the flick offers the chance to revisit the kind of comedy routines that made the pair beloved the world over, along with insights into the real-life people behind the laughs. For everyone else, it’s a warm-hearted but never maudlin reverie on age, fame and friendship.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Stan & Ollie (PG) opens Jan. 25 at AMC Lennox Town Center 24, AMC Easton Town Center 30, the Drexel Theatre, the Gateway Film Center and Marcus Crosswoods Cinema.

Shadowbox finds horrific humor in zombies, political correctness

Stephanie Shull (left) and Julie Klein perform Divas Do Hard Rock in Shadowbox Live’s The Rocking Dead. (Photos by Buzz Crisafulli)

By Richard Ades

Halloween is the season devoted to the scary side of life. So it’s appropriate that Shadowbox Live’s Halloween-season show, The Rocking Dead, has a skit devoted to one of the scarier developments of modern life.

Killer Correctness shows what happens when two cops (Jimmy Mak and Guillermo Jemmott) try to solve a string of murders whose only witness (Katy Psenicka) lives her life according to politically correct principles. The upshot is that she would rather let a killer go free than answer the most basic questions about race, gender, height and so forth, explaining that she doesn’t want to make assumptions based on mere physical appearance.

At its best, political correctness means simply treating everyone with respect. At its worst, it’s the fear that someone, somewhere, somehow will be offended if you don’t constantly monitor and censure everything you and the rest of society say or do. Killer Correctness hilariously faces this debilitating illness head on.

Not quite as funny but even more politically minded is President Frank, featuring an Igor-like press secretary (John Boyd) who struggles to explain a monstrous commander-in-chief (Billy DePetro) who’s determined to build a “border moat” and seems to enjoy throwing women in the lake. Shadowbox seldom delves into national politics, but let’s face it: The current occupant of the White House is an irresistible target.

The rest of the skits seldom reach this level of level of originality, and some are rehashes of bits from earlier shows. Taken altogether, though, they add up to an enjoyable evening. They include:

World War Spazoids: Kirby (Jimmy Mak) warns his familiar group of nerdy friends that some of their classmates are turning into zombies.

Divas Do Hard Rock: Reprising a well-worn but clever bit, a pair of divas (Julie Klein and Stephanie Shull) put an operatic spin on hits by Ozzy Osbourne, AC/DC and the like.

Hellchild: A harried teacher (Klein) struggles to convince a doting mom (Psenicka) that her son (DePetro) is possessed.

Important Stuff News: A pair of juvenile journalists (Mak and Michelle Daniels) anchor a newscast that looks at Halloween from a kid’s viewpoint.

Who’s Your Daddy?: A Maury Povich-like TV host (Boyd) talks to a woman (Psenicka) who believes her daughter was fathered by a werewolf (Brandon Anderson).

Hang in There: In perhaps the weakest skit, an incipient zombie attack sets off a generational conflict between an office worker (Mak) and a millennial intern (Boyd).

Billy DePetro sings Psycho Killer by Talking Heads.

If the comedic bits include both hills and valleys, the musical portions of the show exist on a consistently high plateau. Setting the proper tone from the outset, Ashley Pearce sings Single File’s Zombies Ate My Neighbors while a group of vigilantes erect a barricade to fight off an expected attack. A little later, DePetro does a lively David Byrne tribute with Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer.

If I had to pick my favorite vocalization of the night, it would have to be band member Brent Lambert’s gruff-voiced interpretation of Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun, augmented with a tasty riff from fellow guitarist Aaron Joseph. But it would be a close call, given the classy vocal work from Brandon Anderson (Bullet With Butterfly Wings), Noelle Anderson (Born Under a Bad Sign), Klein (Ghost in My Machine) and others.

Additional cover songs that deserve mention: Concrete Blonde’s Bloodletting, sung by Eryn Reynolds in a way that manages to be both creepy and sexy; and Muse’s Psycho, sung by Jemmott. The latter number seems to go on forever, but it’s so much fun that even non-headbangers won’t mind at all.

The Rocking Dead continues through Nov. 11 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Fridays and 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Saturdays. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20-$40. A one-hour “Nightcap” version will be presented at 10:30 p.m. select Fridays; tickets are $20-$25. 614-416-7625 or www.shadowboxlive.org.

Frantic search for amore (and laughs)

Though Catholic, Domenico Nesci is not above donning a yarmulke for a romantic encounter arranged through JDate. (Photo courtesy of Random Media)

By Richard Ades

The Lonely Italian is being marketed as the “Borat of online dating.” I doubt many fans of that raunchy 2006 comedy will think it measures up, but there are a couple of similarities.

First, the star (L.A.-based TV and radio host Domenico Nesci) has an accent, though in this case it’s an actual accent. And second, most of the folks who meet Nesci in the documentary-style film are apparently unaware they’re being used as comic foils.

Directed by Lee Farber, the flick’s premise is that Nesci is frustrated over his inability to find female companionship. His explanation is that modern women have their noses buried so deep in their computers that it’s impossible to strike up a conversation with them.

Figuring the only way to meet them is through those computers, Nesci throws himself into the online dating scene with a vengeance. Once he finds Tinder, for example, he figures he’s hit the motherlode and “swipes right” on every profile he finds.

Other sampled sites include the old staple, Match.com, as well as more specialized offerings such as JDate. The latter is a stretch for Nesci because he’s Catholic rather than Jewish, but he doesn’t seem to care. After landing a date, he simply dons a yarmulke and fakes it until he thinks the woman is sufficiently charmed to overlook his duplicity. (She isn’t.)

In another stretch, Nesci tries DateMeDateMyPet.net and scores an impromptu meetup for which he’s forced to borrow a dog from a reluctant friend. This leads to a somewhat amusing encounter during which Nesci tells the woman his pooch is a 26-year-old female, only to be informed that 26 is improbably old and that the dog clearly has a penis.

Several of the dates fall into the “somewhat amusing” category because it’s all too obvious Nesci is doing a comic shtick by being either impossibly dense or willfully coarse. For the most part, the women react with smiling indulgence, though it’s not clear whether they give him a pass because (1) he’s an immigrant and they figure he doesn’t know better, or (2) they suspect it’s all a joke.

One date in which a woman doesn’t react with smiling indulgence is also one of the funnier episodes. When Nesci offers the woman a meat-and-cheese sandwich, she reminds him that she clearly told him she’s vegan and eats no animal products. The encounter goes downhill after the hungry Nesci tries to sneak a piece of meat himself.

Though the dates are hit or miss in terms of laughs and credibility, they generally fare better than staged scenes that feature Nesci and a concerned friend named Marquesa (Mark Chuakay). Especially unwelcome is a belated attempt at drama that sees Nesci supposedly having an attack of conscience over the self-centered way he’s been pursuing romance.

Yeah, right. Nesci clearly has been pursuing laughs rather than love, making this development about as convincing as the average online dating profile.

Rating: 2½ stars (out of 5)

The Lonely Italian was released Aug. 15 through VOD outlets.

Comedy offers horrific orgy of sex, blasphemy and puppetry

Jason (Danny Turek), a teenager possessed by his demonic hand puppet, threatens Pastor Greg (Jonathan Putnam) in Short North Stage’s production of Hand to God. (Photo by Jason Allen)
Jason (Danny Turek), a teenager possessed by his demonic hand puppet, threatens Pastor Greg (Jonathan Putnam) in Short North Stage’s production of Hand to God. (Photos by Jason Allen)

By Richard Ades

Hand to God has moments of hilarity, along with moments of horror. It starts, though, with a moment of disorientation.

Because set designer Bill Pierson has reconfigured the Garden Theater’s Green Room to resemble a church rec room, and because guests are handed a “church bulletin” on their way in, they may be unprepared for what happens next. A puppet appears on the “stage” of a miniature theater set up on one side of the room. But rather than offer the expected Christian message, he begins talking about “extracurricular fucking” and other things that are bad but “unavoidable.”

This, we learn, is Tyrone, and he’ll be saying and doing things that are even more outrageous before the show is over. Is he the devil, or is he simply a manifestation of a teenage boy’s inner thoughts and desires? That’s one of the questions playwright Robert Askins raises in his religion-taunting comedy.

The sacrilegious fun starts in earnest when we meet the flesh-and-blood characters who come into contact with Tyrone (and lose a little flesh and blood in the process).

Jessica (Kate Lingnofski) is a recently widowed mom who is supervising a puppet-making project at the Pilgrim Lutheran Church in Cypress, Texas. Taking part in the project are teenagers Margery (Barbara Weetman) and Timothy (Chad Goodwin), along with Jessica’s son, Jason (Danny Turek). Overseeing it all is Pastor Greg (Jonathan Putnam), who hopes the puppets will be used to spread the Gospel.

Thanks to Tyrone, that never happens. Created by Jason and attached more or less permanently to his left hand, the puppet appears to have a mind of his own. And what a disturbing mind it is—by Texas Lutheran standards, at least. He insists on blurting out thoughts that the shy and conflicted Jason would prefer to keep private, such as his carnal feelings toward Margery. Saddled with what amounts to a dual role, Turek does an admirable job of switching back and forth between the put-upon Jason and his vicious alter ego.

Jessica (Kate Lingnofski) watches as Pastor Greg (Jonathan Putnam) confronts an amorous Timothy (Chad Goodwin).
Jessica (Kate Lingnofski) watches as Pastor Greg (Jonathan Putnam) confronts an amorous Timothy (Chad Goodwin).

Working under Edward Carignan’s exuberant direction, the other cast members perform at the same high level. Weetman makes Margery an appealing combination of sweetness and pluck, while Putnam gives Pastor Greg a believable blend of human fallibility and heroic strength. As the frustrated Jessica and the hormone-driven Timothy, Lingnofski and Goodwin create big laughs while acting out an encounter that is aggressively kinky and probably illegal.

My only quibble with Askins’s comedy is that it tries too hard to be outrageous. OK, I can buy that Bible Belt Christians have secret frustrations and desires that sometimes lead them into unspeakable acts, but would they really drop so many F-bombs in the process? That’s a minor point, though.

Overall, the show is a provocative delight. As a bonus, it even leaves viewers with a final thought from Tyrone that gives them something to mull over on the way home.

Short North Stage will present Hand to God through March 5 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday (no 3 p.m. show Feb. 25), and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $30. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.

In a world where men hide and women preside…

Shana Kramer, Cat McAlpine and Kyle Jepson (from left) in MadLab’s world premiere of Scritch Scritch by Christopher Lockheardt (photo by Michelle DiCeglio)

Shana Kramer, Cat McAlpine and Kyle Jepson (from left) in MadLab’s world premiere of Scritch Scritch by Christopher Lockheardt. (photo by Michelle DiCeglio)

By Richard Ades

Scritch Scritch is pretty enjoyable, if a bit puzzling.

Christopher Lockheardt’s world-premiere comedy begins as Rebecca (Kyle Jepson) is observing her 32nd birthday. While she and her mom (Mary Sink) celebrate, Rebecca mentions that she’d like to get married and have children, but she has no idea where to find a husband. Oddly, though most mothers with grownup children are eager to become grandmothers, Rebecca’s mom urges her to remain single.

Another puzzling development arises before the little party breaks up: Rebecca begs for stories about her long-lost father, but her mom refuses to talk about him.

The mystery deepens when Rebecca’s friend Daley (Shana Kramer) drops by, and the two hear the scratching sounds that give the show its title. Deciding Rebecca’s home has attracted a mouse, they call in an exterminator (Cat McAlpine), who quickly determines they have a much bigger problem: “You have a man in the house.”

In this world, it seems, men are considered pests who don’t fit in with society because of their dirty, noisy and annoying ways. Therefore, they must be trapped using lures such as beer and remote controls and “poisoned” with multivitamins, nutrition being lethal to their male constitutions.

But wait a minute, you’re probably asking yourself if you’re anything like I was at this stage in the play. Wasn’t Rebecca just saying she wants a husband but doesn’t know where to find one? Why, then, would she want to exterminate the presumably available man who’s taken up residence in her house?

The answer to this is something I didn’t figure out until later, so skip over the rest of this paragraph if you want to remain equally in the dark. Rebecca doesn’t know that husbands are men! Not only that, but she doesn’t know fathers are men, which becomes apparent much later.

There are a few things Mom (Mary Sink, right) hasn’t told her daughter (Kyle Jepson) about the facts of life. (photo by Michelle DiCeglio)
There are a few things Mom (Mary Sink, right) hasn’t told her daughter (Kyle Jepson) about the facts of life. (photo by Michelle DiCeglio)

The play is easier to understand once you know this, so I’m not sure why playwright Lockheardt wanted to keep it a secret. Or maybe he didn’t mean to but simply failed to make it clear.

At any rate, even if you don’t totally understand the peculiarities of the play’s female-centered society, you’ll catch on that Lockheardt is poking fun at male stereotypes such as their supposed love of drinking beer, eating junk food, playing loud music and generally making a mess. There’s nothing particularly original about these observations, and they don’t completely explain why they’ve made men pariahs. After all, Rebecca’s friend Daley has some of these same tendencies, proving that gender stereotypes don’t always hold true. Still, they’re good for a few chuckles.

Helping to sell the flawed script is a cast that gives punchy performances under Jim Azelvandre’s direction (with assistance from Becky Horseman). Jepson and Sink’s portrayals are enough alike that it’s easy to believe Rebecca and her mom are related. As the eccentric exterminator, McAlpine is humorously deadpan, and Kramer adds loads of energy as the fun-loving, wise-cracking Daley.

Though the play is a comedy, it does have some somber and even touching moments, especially toward the end. These are nicely handled by the cast and augmented by Rob Philpott’s lighting. As with the comic moments, they would be easier to appreciate if the mindset behind the play’s matriarchy were a little less confusing.

So how can a work this flawed be more or less enjoyable? Maybe it has something to do with the play and the production’s laidback nature and lack of pretentiousness. Since they don’t seem to take themselves that seriously, it’s hard to take their missteps all that seriously either.

Scritch Scritch continues through Sept. 3 at MadLab Theatre and Gallery, 227 N. Third St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $15, $13 students/seniors, $10 members. 614-221-5418 or madlab.net.

Chekhovian angst mined for Durang-ian mirth

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and SpikeBy Richard Ades

There’s nothing quite as fun as watching Christopher Durang take on the Catholic Church, as he proved in his classic satire Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. But seeing him take on Anton Chekhov is also good for laughs.

He does so in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, a 2013 Tony Award winner that borrows names and themes from the dour Russian, along with a general air of depressed malaise. That is, the characters suffer from depression; the audience is in hysterics.

CATCO’s current production benefits from a director with a flair for comedy—David Hemsley Caldwell—and two lead players who are equally adept. Jonathan Putnam and Danielle Mann are quietly masterful as Vanya and Sonia, the 50-something siblings who share a miserable existence in the home once owned by their deceased parents.

The first scene establishes their flinty relationship. Sonia brings Vanya his morning coffee, only to learn he’s already poured himself a cup. She complains that he’s deprived her of one of her few daily pleasures, leading to an argument that eventually ends in broken china.

Sonia, we learn, was adopted. We also learn that she’s attracted to Vanya despite his protestations that he marches to a “different drummer”—i.e., he’s gay. Putnam and Mann inhabit the unhappy pair so thoroughly that their personalities come through even when they’re just sitting and glumly observing the world.

Meanwhile, Chekhov is referenced in multiple ways, including Sonia’s insistence that a nearby stand of 10 or 11 trees constitutes a “cherry orchard.” But don’t worry if you’re rusty on the playwright’s works—Durang throws in enough explanations to keep everyone in the loop.

In a nod to Greek mythology, he also makes sure we know why a character named Cassandra is doomed to making dire predictions that no one believes. Shanessa Sweeney is a live wire as the housekeeper, whose ability to see the future comes in handy following the sudden appearance of Sonia and Vania’s successful sister, Masha (Lori Cannon).

The movie star barges in with her younger lover, Spike (William Darby), and begins talking about a change that will upset her siblings’ boring but stable existence. Narcissistic and overbearing, Masha proved a difficult character to enjoy at Wednesday’s preview matinee, especially since Cannon at first had trouble playing her with more than one note. Cannon fared better after intermission, when Masha’s insecurities bubbled to the surface and made her recognizably—and hilariously—human.

As Spike, Darby has some nice comic moments but is mostly limited to stripping off his clothes and showing off his physique. In a more nuanced role, Kristen Krak is lovable as Nina, an aspiring actress who quickly forms a bond with the man she insists on calling “Uncle Vanya.”

Completing the near-perfect production, Eric Barker’s painterly set is expressively lit by Jarod Wilson to suggest the passage of time as the action wends its way from morning to night and back to morning. It’s an entertaining and surprisingly warm-hearted trip, and one that’s well worth taking.

CATCO will present Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike through April 24 in Studio One, Riffe Center, 77 S. High St., Columbus. A preview will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Thursday (April 7). Regular show times are 11 a.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $17 Wednesday, $30 Thursday, $40 Friday-Saturday and $35 Sunday. 614-469-0939 or catco.org.

Comedy has Texas-sized helping of humor, heart

Dr. Eve Bolinger (Ruth Sternberg) tries to “de-homosexualize” Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram (Mark Phillips Schwamberger) in Evolution Theatre Company’s production of Sordid Lives (photo by Jerri Shafer)
Dr. Eve Bolinger (Ruth Sternberg) tries to “de-homosexualize” Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram (Mark Phillips Schwamberger) in Evolution Theatre Company’s production of Sordid Lives (photo by Jerri Shafer)

By Richard Ades

Judging from the size of Friday night’s audience, Sordid Lives looks like one of Evolution Theatre Company’s more popular productions.

It’s not hard to see why. Del Shores’s comedy has become a cult hit since it first appeared in 1996 and subsequently spawned a movie and a short-lived TV series. It may not be a great work of art, but it’s a fun piece of theater.

In Evolution Theatre Company’s production, it benefits from a seasoned group of performers who seem to enjoy sinking their teeth into Shores’s juicy Texas stereotypes.

Pam Welsh-Huggins gets each of the four scenes off to a tuneful start as vocalist/guitarist Bitsy Mae Harling, who sings and strums her way through a handful of mood-setting tunes. Also establishing the proper mood is Shane Cinal’s Texas-centric set design, complete with homey furniture and the skull of a longhorn steer.

The scenes nearly function as separate set pieces except that they’re connected by a recent death: Peggy Ingram, a mother and grandmother, died after tripping over the wooden legs of neighbor G.W. (Ralph Edward Scott). Making her departure not only painful but embarrassing for her family, the accident happened while she and the married G.W. were sharing a motel room.

The scenes also have a thematic connection in the form of repressed sexuality. Peggy’s son, Earl “Brother Boy” Ingram (Mark Phillips Schwamberger), has been institutionalized in an attempt to “cure” him of his gay, cross-dressing ways. And her grandson, New York-based actor Ty (Andrew Trimmer), is struggling to come to terms with the homosexuality that he’s afraid to reveal to his family, especially strait-laced mother Latrelle (Lori Cannon).

The first scene takes place at the home of Peggy’s sister Sissy (Betsy Poling), who is attempting to grieve and quit smoking at the same time. It features the awkward reunion of Peggy’s younger daughter, LaVonda (Danielle Mari), and Noletta (Kathy Sturm), wife of the philanderer whose prosthetic legs were responsible for Peggy’s death.

The second scene is set in the local bar owned by Wardell (David Vargo), who is still ashamed that he and G.W. once gay-bashed Brother Boy, an act that may have led to the latter’s institutionalization. Also present are barflies Juanita (Vicky Welsh Bragg) and Odell Owens (Jeb Bigelow).

What makes these scenes work is that director Beth Kattelman seems to have encouraged the actors to invest in the characters rather than trolling for laughs. This allows the humor to flow naturally from the absurd situations and down-home dialogue.

However, the production doesn’t really hit its peak until after intermission. That’s when we finally meet the much-discussed Brother Boy, along with his therapist, Dr. Eve Bolinger (Ruth Sternberg). Schwamberger is a revelation as the long-institutionalized patient, who gamely puts up with Bolinger’s attempts to “de-homosexualize” him in hopes he’ll finally be allowed to go home. His portrayal is both hilarious and touching.

So, for that matter, is the scene itself. Adding to its effectiveness are Nitz (Curtis) Brown’s dramatic lighting and Sternberg’s crafty portrayal of the ruthless Bolinger.

Not surprisingly, the play ends with Peggy’s funeral and the tying up of the comedy’s various threads.

According to an ETC Facebook post, last Saturday’s performance of Sordid Lives sold out. With raunchy regional humor and an uplifting message, the comedy is likely to continue pulling in crowds. Translation: Order your tickets now.

Evolution Theatre Company will present Sordid Lives through Sept. 26 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20, $15 students/seniors. 1-800-838-3006 or evolutiontheatre.org.