Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Review: Smashterlife

By Michael Block

Picture it. Imagine a future where Ivy Lynn and Karen Cartwright are older and reunited in schlocky “community” theater. They are still continuing on with sleazy director Derek Wills. When one of them, whoever Tom Levitt wrote the play for dies due to accidental overdose, they get to watch the aftermath with the help of a ghostly friend. If you didn't get it, those were all references to the doomed cult television series "Smash". And if you replace the names, that was essentially the plot of Wendy Mae Shelton's A Light in the Dark playing the Planet Connections Festival.
photo by Sebastian Montoyo
If it sounds derivative, it is. Call it "Smash" meets "It's a Wonderful Life" or "Death Becomes Her" meets Noises Off. Any way you cut it, A Light in the Dark is derivative. But that doesn't mean it's not enjoyable. The play by Shelton takes big stereotypes that were slightly grounded in reality and thrusts them into a world that's familiar to us theater folk. A Light in the Dark doesn't necessarily offer any new ideas but opens our eyes to the idea of reflection through regret. Shelton's dialogue is snappy and when a joke lands, it lands. The cliches though? Not as much. With the play within the play format, Shelton offers a super heightened story to introduce the world but any more of that play would have been unbearable. And perhaps that's where the giant laugh comes after the big reveal. We get a nice bookend with the play within the play that wraps up the story nicely. Shelton could have benefitted from a more accessible ending as the moral was hidden a little too deep.
The core characters of A Light in the Dark went to the extremes. Either big characterizations, ridiculous antics, or farfetched situations. Comedy was key. In the central role of Maggie, Jill Bianchini found her inner diva and allowed it to explode on stage. She did a fine job clocking in the rules of the world alongside the audience. When it came to sleazy, Joshua Mark Sienkiewicz nailed it. As Tony, Sienkiewicz was an indisputable bad guy. Does this person really exist in the business? Hopefully not to this extreme but nevertheless, Sienkiewicz followed the text. Taking on the not so innocent ingénue, Amber Crawford was in a different play stylistically. She played the reserved extreme. Playing the device of spiritual porter Buzzy Buckley, Al Foote III was all-knowing but easily could have had more fun. The content was there.
There's only so much you can predict when it comes to the uncertainty of festivals but a bad seat can seriously alter the perception of a show. Site lines were not in director Lori Kee's favor. Trying to add variance to her staging, it's likely any action placed on the extremes you missed. But when it came to sticking with a plan, Kee did so. She infused big comedy to Shelton's play to give it a bit more life. By avoiding the melodrama, Kee’s company entertained.
There was something old fashioned about A Light in the Dark. And maybe it's due to playing into common plot devices. A Light in the Dark will entertain you, and sometimes that's all theater needs to do.