Back in its earliest days, Playwright's Forum seemed more like Memphis playwright Howell Pearre's own private repertory company. For the first half-dozen seasons, he was the group's principal playwright, and he continued to contribute new pieces right up until his death in 1999. His one-act plays were often accomplished bits of traditional Southern fare, gothic-leaning with an occasional dollop of absurdism tossed in for flavor, chock-full of caustic wit and wry one-liners. His full-length plays, on the other hand, always seemed incomplete. Such is the case with Tommy Pine's Greatest Hits, a thoroughly silly farce, currently on stage at TheatreWorks, about the funeral of a famous (and famously debauched) honky-tonk singer. Tommy Pine's was first presented at the original TheatreWorks on South Main in 1991, but to honor Pearre, a founding member of their small but enduring company and to celebrate the close of a season dedicated entirely to locally written scripts, Playwright's Forum has given Tommy Pine's a less-than-stellar revival.
Of all Pearre's meditations on the lives of the poor and tasteless, this one comes closest to veering off into total trailer-park clichÇ. Though it supposedly takes place within Nashville's well-heeled country-music set, the author took little inspiration from the richly eccentric history of that clan, choosing instead to create broadly drawn characters from some double-wide community on the white-trash side of Toon-town. Over the course of two acts, a vast array of country-fried morons and misfits gather at a progressive (read: perfectly queer) funeral parlor to engage in an orgy of deception and backstabbing, as they squabble and plot to carve their futures from the legacy of Tommy Pine, the superstar singer who bit it in a fiery car wreck. What begins like an episode of Jerry Springer ends without resolution, like some Benny Hill rerun with characters chasing one another comically about the funeral home. It's enough to leave even the least discriminating theatergoer wondering what the hell was that?
In spite of the meandering plot, there are a few wonderful characters and enough outstanding performances to keep things interesting. Beth Henderson is a bubble-headed delight as the dim-witted Heidi-Fay Boston (think Irlene Mandrel but dumber and sluttier). An accomplished physical comedian, Henderson gets more mileage out of a blank stare than should be allowed by law. Her sight gags alone are worth the ticket price. The always-underestimated Laurie Cook McIntosh also does a credible job as Tommy's cradle-robbing bitch of a mother, keeping things honest even when the dialogue becomes unreal. The rest of the large (for TheatreWorks) cast ranges from adequate to awful and overacting seems to be the standard. While this was never Pearre's best script, it still could have been much, much better.
Through July 5th.
There is a thing called chemistry. Its presence can make a scene between two bad actors completely magical. The lack of it can render a scene between two extraordinary talents flatter than an extra-flat pancake in Flatland. I can only chalk up my lack of enthusiasm for Bat Boy: The Musical to a lack of chemistry between the performers. After all, the script is loads of fun, and the performances at Playhouse on the Square are all very nearly superb. But somehow this wonderfully happy convergence of good things never generated much excitement on stage. Well, not for me anyway.
Bat Boy keeps good company. That is to say, it's not the first musical to cloak a ham-fisted moral in sugary horrorshow kitsch. Sadly, it's not the best either. It's neither as colorful nor daring as The Rocky Horror Show. It's not as overtly political or giddy as Little Shop of Horrors. For campy fun, it can't compete with Zombie Prom. And none of these monster musicals can begin to stand up alongside the great Sweeney Todd. Still, Bat Boy makes a nice addition to the creepier side of the musical canon, and Playhouse's production is very nearly flawless.
Taken individually, it would be difficult to say enough good things about the cast. Michael Ingersoll (Bat Boy) finds the perfect balance between the sweet and the creepy. As his love interest Shelly, Playhouse company member Angela Groeschen continues to prove why she may be the most versatile, chameleonlike actress in town. Musical heavy-hitter Leah Bray Nichols hands in one of her finest performances yet as Shelly's animal-loving mother, and Kent Fleshman makes about the finest evil veterinarian you've ever seen. But taken together the ensemble fails to deliver. The stakes are never high enough. The danger is never real. Fortunately, between all the pointy ears and the horrible blood-sucking, there is just enough silliness to keep things moving in a good direction. n
Through July 27th.