Lost In the Funhouse 

A fine Fuddy Meers arrives at Theatre Memphis; sadly, nobody notices.

A Brief Review

Claire has a special problem. Every night when she goes to sleep, she loses her memory. Her loving second husband, a recovered drug fiend who met and married her in the hospital, spends his days helping her cope with her disability and protecting her from the painful memories that led to her predicament. Add to the boiling pot Claire's lisping, deformed, and once-violent ex-hubby who's escaped from the hoosegow with his buddy Millet, Millet's alter ego, a potty-mouthed sock puppet named Hinky Pinky, and a love-smitten prison cook who's dressed up like a cop, bad attitude and all. Thicken the pot with a kidnapping -- the historically challenged Claire is secreted away to her grandmother's house by the escaped cons. Granny is sharp as a tack and quite the talker, but a stroke has turned her words into gibberish. This is where Fuddy Meers, David Lindsey-Abaire's comic exploration of classic suspense, really begins to take off.

All but stealing elements from plays by Craig Lucas (Breathless), Christopher Durang (The Marriage of Bette and Boo), and Sam Shepard (A Lie of the Mind), with shout out to Stephen King just for good measure, the playwright has created in Fuddy Meers a lightning-paced Frankenstein's monster of a play, the ultimate success of which depends on getting EVERY-dang-THANG pitch-perfect. And while Theatre Memphis' production, under the attentive direction of Tony Isbell, misses in a few crucial areas, it still manages to be some viciously good fun.

The downside of this Fuddy Meers is that the production focuses on the script's abundant comic elements, while the tropes of classic suspense are left to swing in the breeze. Had the production gone in the opposite direction, the comedy would have taken care of itself. But here I am complaining, as I am prone to do, because an already good thing wasn't much, much better.

The ensemble cast appears to be having a blast working together, and the fun is infectious. Tracie Hansom's Claire is as sweetly tragic as Joey Watson's hand (the angry Hinky Pinky) is upsetting. And after his extended stay in Louisiana, it's just good to see the always-solid Brian Mott back on a Memphis stage and in top form.

And a Long Rant

As Executive Director Ted Strickland noted shortly after taking the helm at Theatre Memphis, the well-appointed playhouse is no longer located in the beating heart of a trendy East Memphis, as it most certainly was when the facility opened in the '70s. A gem of community theater, which, astonishingly enough, fell on hard times during the '90s boom, has found itself in a sort of semibucolic netherworld, just a wrong turn away from the upscale shops and food-chain paradise where Poplar converges with Perkins. A resurrected downtown, with its marketing cannons aimed solidly at a younger, hipper set of disposable incomes, has no doubt taken another terrible toll on theater attendance. Factor in the siren song of Tunica, and it should come as no big surprise that Fuddy Meers, a funny, offbeat play, would open in TM's Little Theatre to an all but empty house.

Even more tragically, it seems very possible that everyone in attendance on opening night was in some way directly connected to the show: TM board members, friends who had donated props, and volunteers who had come to set up for the traditional opening-night party. There have been much larger groups gathered to see the works of completely unknown playwrights at TheatreWorks and various low-tech storefront spaces of late, so it can't be said that the audience for this sort of event does not exist. To complicate matters, it can be assumed that Fuddy Meers has little appeal for TM's main subscription base, a great gray goose known to get skittish around anything too progressive. Even mild profanity can result in significant walkouts.

The idea of creating a private entrance to TM's Little Theatre, allowing for more frequent productions and a completely different kind of theatergoing experience, has been batted around by some members of the TM board in recent years. That would certainly allow the space to develop and market an identity separate from the stodgy parent organization and could be beneficial in building a younger, more daring audience.

Still, location being what it is, my advice would be: "Get thee a satellite." There's lots of empty shopfronts downtown, and there are people there on the weekends watching movies, getting their daiquiri goggles on, and having a gay ol' time. And there must be at least one building owner who'd stand to benefit from Uncle Sam while improving their property and helping an established not-for-profit get a little something going in the central business district. Oh, sure, the Little Theatre is a fine space -- one of the best in town, though the sound system bites and any number of improvements could be made. But for gosh sakes, if the ragtag Hungry Gorilla Productions can pack the (admittedly tiny) basement of the Map Room for a midnight showcase of student monologues, surely something as unique and funny as Fuddy Meers can find its niche.

Through April 28th.

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