Need a good laugh? Head to Lab Theater for “Play On!”
We are all creatures of habit to varying degrees, and whenever someone or something threatens our routine, chaos is likely to ensue. This is the premise that underlies Rick Abbot’s “Play On!,” which opened over the weekend at Lab Theater in the River District.
“Play On!” is a play within a play in the time-honored tradition of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” and, more recently, Alan Bennett’s “The Habit of Art.” In Abbot’s case, this tried-and-true theatrical device is used to parody self-consumed playwrights who sacrifice realistic dialogue and plotting on the altar of pedantic literary constructs such as alliteration, consonance and Deus ex Machina.
In the case of “Play On,” the stand-in for all those egocentric, self-absorbed, narcissistic playwrights who’ve been the bane of existence for directors and actors through the centuries is Phyllis Montague. To be fair, Phyl Montague is not some malevolent monster. Worse, she’s completely oblivious to the havoc her incessant tweaking and fine-tuning wreaks on her hapless director and cast. Phyllis Montague has never met a line of dialogue she couldn’t improve or a plot she couldn’t twist, and even she can’t remember all the changes she’s made by the time the actors are ready for their final dress rehearsal on the night before the opening.
The result is disastrous. Because Montague has made so many changes during rehearsals, the amateur actors in Montague’s murder-mystery alternately forget their lines or revert back to bits of dialogue that have been altered or dropped. In the ensuing confusion, the actors, sound and lighting tech and stage manager miss cues and fail to produce vital props and sound effects. Rehearsals drag on far into the night, and everyone has to be at their day jobs in the morning - not to mention that 17-year-old Smitty has a biology exam for which she has yet to study!
Understandably, tensions mount. The actors bicker. To lighten the mood (or so he claims), the play’s villain cracks tasteless fat jokes directed against one of his cast mates, which provokes the ire of her husband, who’s also in the theater group. And all the while, the over-caffeinated and harried director struggles to maintain focus and decorum with as much chance for success as Captain Edward Smith had of saving the Titanic after it struck the iceberg.
When Lab Theater touts its production of “Play On!” as side-splitting comedy, that’s not just marketing hyperbole. The play is actually that funny, and more. The most hilarious moment in the whole show occurs during the dress rehearsal scene in Act Two when the cast cracks itself up along with the director and all of the stage hands. Their belly laughs and throaty guffaws are infectious, and create the perfect set-up for the Act Three finale, when the show goes live and everything that can go wrong, does to the playwright’s deserved chargrin.
While each of the talented members of Lab’s “Play On!” cast have backgrounds in comedy, it is their experience in tragedy that makes them well-suited to this production. They understand both cognitively and viscerally what it’s like to be in a situation where their time and reputation are on the line but they have little control over the results of their efforts. That’s what makes them so relatable individually and as a group. You don’t have to be a thespian or theater-goer to love this play. All that’s required is that you’ve worked for a boss or been in an organization that sets you up for failure rather than success, and which sabotages your every instinct and desire to do a good job.
The irrepressible Gerrie Benzing portrays the playwright we all love to hate. But she’s more than just the catalyst for all the laughs and confusion. With her flair for melodrama, her backstage antics during the final dress rehearsal will have you in tears (in a good way), and don’t lose sight of her during Murder So Foul’s opening night in the final act. The pain she feels as her play devolves into an ad hoc improv session is almost palpable.
In the role of Henry Benish, Scott Carpenter once again turns in a masterful performance, and Cindi Heimberg is a stitch as his line-grabbling bootylicious wife, Polly, who sucks up to Montague in order to glean a bigger and better role.
Mike Dinko shines as the villain and castcomedian and prankster. Steven Coe and Rachael Dominguez sizzle as they carry on romantically both on stage and backstage when they think no one is watching.
If you google the word “frazzled” or “harried,” you’ll likely find a head shot of Louise Wigglesworth. She is superb as director Geraldine Dunbar, as is Kendra Weaver as her grumpy and distracted assistant and stage manager, Aggie Manville. But it’s Yvonne Shadrach as Louise the sound and lighting tech who steals a number of scenes. One wonders if The Lab’s own lighting and sound design queen, Rosie DeLeon, imparted some her wisdom and wry observations to Shadrach to prepare her for the role.
If you find yourself in need of a couple of hours of full-body laughter – and who doesn’t these days? – then hurry down to Lab Theater. You won’t be disappointed. But bring a handkerchief or some tissues. It really is that funny. ¦
>> Who: Laboratory Theater of Florida
>> When: Through April 1 (with matinee performances at 2 p.m. on March 19 & 26 and April 1).
>> Where: 1634 Woodford Ave., Fort Myers
>> Cost: $25 for Adults and $12 and for students at the door.
>> Info: 218-0481 or http:// LaboratoryTheaterFlorida.com.
— See more about local theater and the arts from Tom Hall at artswfl.com