Play Musty for Me
In South Florida, summer shows, like summer clothes, tend toward lightweight informality. So it's not surprising that the Stage Door Theatre in Coral Springs opted to present The Affections of May, a casual comedy that's as unpretentious as a seersucker suit and just as traditional. Canadian playwright Norm Foster's well-structured, single-set play about a woman's struggle to find life after marriage would have been a scandal on Broadway in the 1940s and '50s and the toast of the town in the 1960s. Nowadays, this kind of play rarely makes it to Broadway at all.
The plot is nearly wrinkle-free. In a nameless northern small town, May and Brian Henning have started a bed-and-breakfast in an old homestead. May, a former teacher in the big city, is gung-ho for her new country life, stomping around in overalls and Wellington boots. But Brian, a former salesman with a roving eye, soon announces he's moving back to the city, his old job, and his new girlfriend. To add injury to insult, he makes off with the funds in their joint bank account. Stunned beyond words, May keeps on at the B&B, gamely maintaining total denial of Brian's abandonment. She proclaims to all who will listen that Brian will be back any day now. But she can't do anything to stifle rampant local gossip as her sudden singlehood becomes a major subject of town interest.
Alone in her big old house, May is stuck in self-pity mode and spends a lot of time in bed. But soon, more men invade her life. A local homeless man, Quinn, asks if he can move into one of May's spare rooms in exchange for odd jobs. Quinn's another wounded soul, literate and honorable, but as self-defeating as May is. Then a portly mamma's-boy banker, Hank, hopes to woo her while dangling the prospect of a bank loan as bait. After a drunken Halloween masquerade party, May fends Hank off only to realize she has denied her desire for Quinn. His past wounds and hers keep them from truly connecting -- but wouldn'tcha know, they iron this out in short order.
All right, this isn't Noel Coward, but it's reminiscent of Jean Kerr. May is a put-upon good girl who needs to get in touch with her Inner Woman, while Quinn is the tortured ne'er-do-well good guy so favored by soap opera writers (and old Broadway plays). Hubby Brian is an unmitigated cad, while namby-pamby Hank is the requisite comedic foil. Playwright Foster serves up this celebration of conventionalism in a low-key but careful script, featuring plenty of middlebrow sex jokes and comedic riffs that garnish the underlying story of self-sabotage and redemption.
Director Hugh Murphy's staging strategy is to pump up the comedic elements, which are quite well-staged and well-delivered by the clever, inventive cast of four. Unfortunately, this strategy is only partially successful. Although Foster's tale is peppered with comic zingers and farcical sequences, it's at heart a character-driven romance, a core that the Stage Door crew utterly ignores. As May, Laura Ellington goes for a generic sitcommy acting style, shouting and flouncing with vigor while dodging the character's emotional and psychological nuances. As Quinn, Mike Obertacz offers a solid but stolid performance and a repetitive downbeat vocal inflection that only underscores a lack of character development. May and Quinn talk a lot -- quite a lot -- about their emotional dysfunctions, but as most of the acting is focused on the lines, not on what may lie underneath them, there's little life or chemistry in this romance.
As might be expected, the supporting roles fare better. Dan Reinehr wrings lots of laughs out of Hank the horny banker, but this must be expected from a character who spends lots of time in a rabbit suit while stroking an enormous carrot. Christian Rockwell also does well as the philandering husband, mercifully understated in a wry performance. The attractive physical production features an effective costume design from Larry Bauman. But Sean McClennan's intricate, realistic set, the interior of May's lumbering country house, feels as dated as Foster's script.
Actually, the musty faded feel of this show is enhanced by the theater space it occupies, which offers entertainment value of its own. Ticketholders get the show, of course, as well as a quick trip back to the mid-20th Century. The Stage Door's look, feel, clientele, and program selection is decidedly retro, circa 1958. That's not a dig, exactly. There's something quite charming about this old Door, with its formal lobby and concession stand, uniformed ushers, and old-timey but unstuffy feel. This is a theater that aims to please in a relaxed, neighborly way. If you can go with this retro flow (and keep your 21st-century inner critic in check), you might well enjoy a visit to this easygoing entertainment. No jacket or tie required.
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