The saying goes that the only people who really know the truth about a marriage are the two people in it. Everyone else is a spectator with opinions, even if they are rehearsing a play in the unhappy couple’s garage. Such is the premise of The Groundling, written by Marc Palmieri, which makes its North Carolina premiere at Asheville Community Theatre and runs through Sunday, Sept. 2.
Bob Malone (played by Daniel Sandoval) happened upon a production of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labor’s Lost while in Manhattan and returned many times because the story and the actors’ performances affected him deeply. He’s driven to write his own play, inspired by the Shakespearean original, even though he’s a Long Island landscaper by trade. His hope is that, through theater, he can reach out to his wife with whom he argues incessantly, so he hires two of the professional actors he saw in the Shakespeare show to direct, stage and perform his work. Dodd (Scott Keel) is the director, Victoria (Mandy Bean), stars as Bob’s wife, Karen, in Bob’s play. And Jenni Robinson plays the actual Karen.
All the action takes place in the Malone’s garage, where the play will be staged. The excellent set design includes a colorful, somewhat junky bunch of chairs, a sagging yellow sofa and a folding card table.
Pressure mounts because Bob and Karen have invited family members to attend the performance, and rehearsals aren’t going well. A neighbor named Pete (Haven Kai Volpe) has the role of the young Bob, but Pete is not a skilled reader of iambic pentameter and sounds more like a bad Dr. Seuss poem. By contrast, Victoria knows what she’s doing. She’s taken this job for the money and definitely not to rekindle the “showmance” she and Dodd shared before.
Dodd doesn’t understand Bob’s motives for writing this play (to remind Karen how they met, to take her back to the time when they fell in love). Dodd is more concerned with the burdens of serious directing and making sure he slips some seemingly superior lines of dialogue into Bob’s script. Surrounded by amateurs, Dodd has little to work with in terms of talent or motivation. Only Victoria understands that she must know more about Karen’s personality in order to deliver a credible performance. But she’s not really that serious, either: An evening hanging out with Pete and his sister, Ally (Kelsey Simmons), ends with the floor strewn with crushed beer cans and the lingering smell of marijuana in the garage.
Opening night approaches, and the hilarity of the play reaches an effective climax with the final rehearsal. The cast consistently delivers in terms of comedic timing, one of the strengths of the show. Among the most poignant scenes is the conversation between Karen and Victoria, the wife and the actress hired to portray her. Karen’s defensiveness about Bob’s play contrasts with Victoria’s curiosity about the character she’s representing. Karen the enigma, who yells a lot and slams doors, doesn’t reveal the source of her anger.
The Groundling provides a modern comedic take on Shakespeare. It’s so well-written that when the truth comes out, it’s a profound shift in tone that the actors execute superbly. But the play doesn’t depend upon Love’s Labor’s Lost so much as uses that inspiration to ask a deeper question about how theater inspires audiences.
WHAT: The Groundling
WHERE: Asheville Community Theatre, 35 E. Walnut St., ashevilletheatre.org
WHEN: Through Sunday, Sept. 2. Friday and Saturday at at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. $12-$26