Theatre review: ‘Buncombe Tower’ at The Magnetic Theatre

HOMETOWN HUMOR: Marlene Thompson, left, plays an ambitious district attorney, and Lindsay Lee plays a free spirit in "Buncombe Tower." Peter Lundblad's satire is onstage at The Magnetic Theatre through June 2. Photo courtesy of The Magnetic Theatre

Remember those “Keep Asheville Weird” bumper stickers? Local playwright Peter Lundblad reminds us of them fondly, if ruefully, in his brainy new satire Buncombe Tower onstage through Sunday, June 2, at The Magnetic Theatre.

His clever conceit is to gather a small tribe of Asheville types in an alternate universe called Wolfe City. It’s the near future, when sky bridges connect hotels and tourists, while the locals who service them live below.

The play’s anti-hero is Bert, an agoraphobic slacker who has holed up in a 20-story residential tower to escape the apocalypse. A former girlfriend, Norma, comes back from Burning Man to dislodge him. “There have been worse years than this,” she reminds him. “Civil War. World War II. Great Depression. Gilda Radner losing to Reagan.”

Lindsay Lee as Norma uses her high wattage smile and infectious laugh to make her a winning foil to Corey Parlamento’s lackadaisical Bert.

Giving Norma’s task urgency (and the slender plot its momentum): Bert’s tower is about to be imploded to make way for another tourist attraction. Will he give in to the vacate-the-premises demands of Ruthie, the ambitious district attorney? Will he go ka-boom, a martyr to his anomie and the loss of his beloved city’s weirdness?

The DA sends Bill, a gentle cop (an amiable Jay Allen Ponton), with threats to haul Bert to jail. When these don’t work, Ruthie herself arrives with an only-in-Asheville solution to her problem. Marlene Thompson as Ruthie (pantsuit, tweed jacket, sunglasses) injects much-needed energy when she confronts Bert.

Keep your eyes and ears on those sunglasses. They belonged to Baba, Bert’s recently deceased grandma. She was the legendary, longtime city manager who made Wolfe City rich while enriching herself. “Had her hand in the pocket of every brewery in town,” cop Bill tells us.

The sunglasses may have been key to Baba’s uncanny power, and Ruthie now has them.

In another clever stroke, the playwright makes Baba an actual presence. Her coffin sits center stage. Bert is keeping it here, as she instructed, to go down with the building. She and the rubble will become another tourist attraction. What will happen to Baba and her coffin keeps us intrigued when the characters muse too much.

The playwright packs Buncombe Tower with witty Asheville tropes. Meanwhile, Katie Jones, the director, may be going more for the characters’ soulfulness than for the satire’s bite. On opening night, she was letting Parlemento indulge Bert’s disaffection. Some nervous energy from a man who talks about flinging himself off a tower would give the production more punch.

As Buncombe Tower settles in, its pace, its cues and its comedy may pick up. Meanwhile, Jones has assembled a visually first-rate production. Jason Williams has designed the efficient lighting, and scenic designers Julia Cunningham, Andrew Gall and Tyler Johnson have arranged some of The Magnetic’s best use of stage space. The always excellent sound designer Mary Zogzas subtly underscores the play’s shifting moods.

Like its other much enjoyed topical offerings, The Magnetic’s Buncombe Tower pokes Asheville in the eye while patting it on the head.

WHAT: Buncombe Tower
WHERE: The Magnetic Theatre, 375 Depot St., themagnetictheatre.com
WHEN: Through Sunday, June 2. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m. $22

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About Arnold Wengrow
Arnold Wengrow was the founding artistic director of the Theatre of the University of North Carolina at Asheville in 1970 and retired as professor emeritus of drama in 1998. He is the author of "The Designs of Santo Loquasto," published by the United States Institute for Theatre Technology.

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