Some weeks my job is less about offering opinions about theater than it is about dodging Neil Simon comedies. This week I failed to completely avoid my least favorite playwright, because the only shows opening here last Friday were both written by Simon. I considered attending Stagebrush Theatre's production of Lost in Yonkers, but two other critics told me that its lead actors had been replaced the day before opening, so I opted instead for Is What It Is Theatre's The Gingerbread Lady. I wasn't sorry.
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The Gingerbread Lady is one of Simon's smaller comedies, which is to say that nobody remembers the dreary film version and that it hasn't been resuscitated endlessly by every junior college in the country. It's about Evy, an alcoholic Broadway singing star (presumably based on Simon's ex-wife, Marsha Mason), who returns home from rehab to discover that her needy teenage daughter has moved in with her and that her ex-boyfriend would like to. She's determined to stay off of hooch but, made to mouth Simon's silly sitcom dialogue, she's having a tough go of it.
Is What It Is Theatre has surprised me before with crafty productions and performances by up-and-coming actors who never seem to appear on other stages. Michael Peck's direction here is unremarkable, but he's scared up several worthy actors, among them Janine Smith, whose cranky lead allowed me to sometimes forget how little I think of Simon's writing. After an underwhelming entrance, Smith grumps her way charmingly through scene after scene, most of which find her standing stock-still in a rumpled trench coat, yanking her mouth into a superb frown and hurling insults at her castmates.
The Gingerbread Lady
Studio One Performing Arts Center, 4520 East Thomas
Continues through December 15. Call 480-947-5074.
Smith is outdone by Bisk Consoli, a performer whose turn as Evy's gay pal Jimmy is even more entertaining than his program bio, which lists various whoppers about his acting career but tells us nothing at all about who this talented actor really is. As written, Jimmy is a phobic fairy, the sort of Big Silly who used to be played by Charles Nelson Reilly or the late Paul Lynde (or James Coco, who was Jimmy in the movie). But as played by Consoli, he's more neurotic than nelly, a great, goofy linebacker whose rants are a riot of face-pulling and scenery chewing. Consoli walks off with all of Act Two by muttering a single line -- "Mother of Jesus!" -- which he manages to stretch into 17 hilarious syllables. Note to casting directors: Hire this actor.
At intermission, the septuagenarian seated next to me announced to no one in particular that "You have to be from New York to appreciate this play," but she's mistaken. Without a pair of clever performances to keep my mind off the flaccid dialogue and ho-hum story -- not to mention the moron in the first row who took a phone call early in the first act or the idiot who sat behind me eating pounds of cellophane-wrapped candy, despite angry threats from me -- I could have been a Bronx native and still hated The Gingerbread Lady. Thanks to this production's cantankerous lead performance and hugely funny support from Mr. Consoli, I did not.