There’s something to be said for knowing one’s place in the world, and a show presented at “The Usual Joli Grey Admiral’s Vault, Social Aid, Yacht Club, and Speakeasy off Broadway” is one that is definitely not afraid to embrace the local. And local audiences are the ones most likely to appreciate the insider humor sprinkled throughout Short Order Durang, the current offering at 35below. The show takes a handful of one-acts and screenplays by contemporary playwright Christopher Durang, and serves them up under the conceit of a late-night bar menu at the fictional Usual Joli etc. As is the case with such menus, some dishes really zing, while others leave you feeling at once over-stuffed and under-nourished. But since it’s really all about the beer anyway, maybe that’s okay.
Nevertheless, if what you’re hungry for is adult black comedy, and you don’t mind a certain amount of improvised banter (read: “audience participation”) between courses, you’ll likely enjoy Short Order Durang. Okay, I’m going to drop the culinary metaphor now; but I have to admire director Jason Williams and his collaborators at Asheville Community Theatre for their ability to keep it going all the way down to the last detail. Even the program is chock full of wit, describing one play, for example, as “A dense beefcake of sweaters and rope,” and another as “Fresh Irish Keening sautéed with inappropriateness.” The actors are of course the “servers” here, and one can hardly accuse them of not doing their best to take care of us.
All of this is clever and amusing, and one has the impression that Williams and his actors had a swell time creating this show. One of the stronger plays in the program is “For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls,” Durang’s one-act spoof on The Glass Menagerie. As “Amanda Wingvalley,” Tabatha Hall makes a hilarious pairing with the wry and elfin Ryan Madden, who plays her hypochondriac son. The glee with which the play sends up its original is perhaps best shown by its transformation of the eponymous menagerie into a mug full of swizzle sticks. Hall and Adam Arthur, who also serves in the general capacity of “head waiter” for the show, make a strong showing together in “Funeral Parlor”; and Madden and Stephanie Hickling have a humorous turn in “DMV Tyrant.” The entire cast is involved in the preposterous “Medea” and “The Actor’s Nightmare,” and these occasion some genuine guffaws as well.
For me the great discovery of the evening was Tabatha Hall, who not only seemed to grasp the essence of each character she played, but wisely refrained from hamming it up. There’s also a wonderfully expressive openness to her face — an effect at least partly due to the fact that she keeps her head up and her gaze outward. Some of the other actors, alas, tended to stare either at the wall behind the audience’s heads, or else down at the floor in front of their own feet. This kind of thing is odd indeed in a space as intimate as 35below, where every flicker of an actor’s eyelid is plainly visible. That said, allowances should perhaps be made: the recent spell of bad weather has meant a lot of disruptions to this production, and without a doubt this has an adverse effect on the actors’ ability to face an audience confidently.
But if the show turns out to be uneven, the fault lies at least as much with the material itself as with its interpreters at ACT. Durang has about the most pedigree of any living playwright in America, having been educated at Harvard and the Yale School of Drama, and now heading up the playwriting program at Julliard. Though his heyday was in the 1980s, his plays, screenplays and (yes) musicals continue to be produced and celebrated for their absurd humor and general irreverence. But the truth is, much of it just isn’t all that funny, and some is simply in poor taste. “The Book of Leviticus Show,” for instance, attempts to lampoon ignorant Southern Christian fundamentalists, but the caricature is so exaggerated that it comes off more like a rant. Maybe it would be funnier to someone who has never met an actual Southern Christian fundamentalist. Well, we all have our hang ups. One of Durang’s is apparently religion.
Be that as it may, what Williams and his collaborators have put together has much to recommend as entertainment; and certainly it is a strong instance of 35below’s mission to produce work that provides an edgier complement to the more mainstream works produced upstairs at ACT.
Short Order Durang, an evening of screen plays and one-acts by Christopher Durang. Directed by Jason Williams. Featuring Adam Arthur, Tabatha Hall, Ryan Madden, Stephanie Hickling, Anne-Marie Welty, Travis Kelly and Martin Cohn. Stage Manager / Light Board: Beth Mayo. Tehnical Direction: Matt Kaufman and Jill Summers. Set and Property Design: Jill Summers. Lighting Design: Jason Williams. Costume Design: Whitney Rayl. Sound Board Operator: Scott Carroll. Performances Thursdays through Saturdays, through Feb. 27, 7:30 pm, at 35below at Asheville Community Theatre, 35 E. Walnut St., Downtown Asheville. Tickets: $15/$10. Reservations highly recommended. 254-1320. Alcoholic beverages available for purchase at the show. www.ashevilletheatre.org