Playwright, actor and Eastern North Carolina native Andy Corren opens his latest work — a patchwork of short stories and character sketches — with an a-cappella version of the traditional tune “Dixie” merged with Loverboy’s manic ’80s hit “Turn Me Loose.”
Sounds disconcerting — but the bizarre medley accurately forecasts the mood of Corren’s semi-autobiographical play, Backyard Fruit.
The characters fading in and out on 35below’s black-box stage include Sarah Carpenter’s overweight housewife, who “finds herself” through a Christian exercise show on TV, and Carla Pridgen’s old-school Southern matron, who’s deep in denial about her crumbling marriage. Corren renders himself — at 13, no less — spying on a team of exotic dancing brothers who’ve moved in next door for the summer.
Toss in random character sketches of a Helms-like senator giving his farewell address, a flaming (“I’m a bottom“) prison escapee, and several musical interludes, and you’ve got all the pieces of Backyard Fruit.
But do those assorted slices equal a whole pie?
Although the play is excellently acted — Pridgen is devastating, Carpenter riveting, and Corren both pithy and hilarious — and the set is inventive (Corren actually narrates his tale from a shingled rooftop, complete with “stars”), the material is rife with cliche. Considering that Corren is a gay playwright depicting characters enmeshed in the fabric of New South homosexuality, you’d think he’d want to move beyond tired stereotypes.
Unfortunately, the play too often clings to mincing, lisping and limp wrists — good for a giggle, but the audience doesn’t exactly go home enlightened.
On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with 90 minutes of fun. And in that department, Backyard Fruit is ripe-to-bursting. Highlights include Pridgen’s prissy matron serving “polite tea” (that’s sweet tea with a generous dose of bourbon) and Carpenter composing fan mail to her TV guru, “Beverly Exercise,” while dutifully aerobicizing her way to a thinner, more spiritual and less hetero self.
Corren’s rooftop scenes, though, are the play’s most fully realized. Along with poignant descriptions of his childhood stomping grounds (where the smell of garbage mingles with gardenia), he introduces a gang of snotty girls he calls friends, a sloppy alcoholic mother, and the sexy guys he lusts after. It’s in these biographical sketches that Corren shines, providing the warmth, humor and fragility that make Backyard Fruit, in its finest moments, a bittersweet indulgence.
Backyard Fruit finishes its three-week run at 35below (behind Asheville Community Theatre at 35 E. Walnut St.) Thursday, Sept. 18 through Sunday, Sept. 20. Show time is 9 p.m.; tickets cost $8. For reservations and more information, call 254-1320.