October 25, 2005

Laugh Out Loud

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I have to admit, I wasn’t exactly happy to learn that I had to review a play at the last minute described on the Schwartz Center Website as “Set in the future when formulaic TV plots are acted by robots.” However mid-way through the first scene of Comic Potential as I joined the audience in laughter, I realized that my first impression regarding this play was very much wrong.

Written by popular playwright Alan Ayckbourn (sometimes regarded as a British version of Neil Simon), the play is set in the “foreseeable future” where robotic actors (“actoids”) have taken the place of B-list celebrities during daytime television and soap operas. It starts with us looking in on a hospital scene, all performed by actoids. Everything is going well (considering the soap’s plot isn’t exactly dramatic gold) until the doctor (Manuel Fihman ’06) announces he “will umputate just above the unkle” revealing that even actoids are capable of bungling their lines. While incredibly funny to the audience, this is the last thing that well-past-his-prime, boozing director “Chance” Tate (played brilliantly and hilariously by Alex Kinney) wants to hear. He immediately berates his programmer Prim Spring (Megan Shea grad) and engineer Trudi Floote (Michelle Pascucci ’09) for not keeping the actoids in line, but they simply blame wear and tear on the errors.

Enter Adam Trainsmith (Vijay Vachani ’08), the nephew of very wealthy station owner Lester Trainsmith (Ryan Olsen ’07). He is escorted by man-devouring, ice-woman regional manager Carla Pepperbloom (Jan Rogge) as a favor to Lester. It turns out that Adam is a huge fan of Chance’s earlier comedic work and wants to meet the director. However, during one of Chance’s booze-fests he is left alone in the studio and quickly discovers the “comic potential” of one of the faulty actoids – JCF31333 (Christine Bullen ’08). He soon discovers he can use her, who he names Jacie Triplethree, as a subject for a new comedy show. As the work progress, Adam falls in love with Jacie while she seems change and become more human.

A “pygmillion-like” plot develops where Adam falls in love with his “creation.” However, at first we aren’t quite sure if Adam is more in love with Jacie, or his own accomplishments. At the same time Jacie goes through her own transformation, which is the main theme of the play. This positive idea of love having the ability to humanize forms the basis of Comic Potential.

However, that doesn’t mean that we can’t have a little fun along the way. Jacie usually expresses herself through previously programmed (and hilariously hammy) roles as damsels in distress, tough talking cops or her current role as Nurse Bridget. The adventures of Adam and Jacie as they must eventually escape the menacing plans of Ms. Pepperbloom provide most of the jokes of the play with great success. There are other entertaining subplots the best of which is the rocky relationship between Chance, Prim and Trudi (they don’t exactly follow the whistle-while-you-work idea in the television studio) and hilarious run-ins with a dysfunctional couple played by Alex Herrald ’07 and Natasha Pendleton. Also garnering laughs is the very aged Lester Trainsmith’s interpreter Marmion (Dan Crawford ’07).

Director Stephen Cole’s production works well in the Flexible Theatre and doesn’t get bogged down. The lighting scheme is subtle, yet effective and the musical interludes inserted between scene changes are appropriate.

However the greatest praise I have is for the acting talent. As mentioned before Alex Kinney plays his dagger-tongued, director-from-hell role to the hilt, but still allows us to believe the Chance has a heart of gold hiding somewhere behind his much abused liver. Vijay Vachani is also admirable in his portrayal of hopelessly nerdy but dedicated Adam. The best performance comes from Christine Bullen as Jacie. In a role that is not only physically but stylistically demanding, Bullen is convincing and enjoyable as the emotionally torn Jacie. Clearly the audience favorite, Bullen makes Jacie the appropriate heart of the show.

While a little too “sugary sweet” at times (the dramatic points sometimes seem out of place and simply inserted to make us appreciate the eventual happy ending more), Comic Potential provides simple and fun entertainment, while delivering genuinely comedic satire. Always considerate of the audience and certainly worth checking out, there’s nothing “faulty” with Comedic Potential’s ability to provide entertaining theater.

Comic Potential is playing in the Class of ’56 Flexible Theatre at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts October 26-29 at 8 p.m. with 2 p.m. performances on October 29 and 30.

Archived article by Mark Rice
Sun Movie Editor