I usually leave playwright Joe Marshall's comedies having found plenty to like. Marshall regularly offers interesting insights into the human condition; his people are usually at least amusing; his dialogue is often droll and sometimes downright funny. But In a Nutshell, which Marshall is presenting via his own Alternative Theatre Company, needs more than just better actors and bigger production values to move its story along. This dramedy's opening-night performance seemed more like a staged reading of an early draft of Marshall's newest story.
In fact, there is no story here; only a series of situational tirades in which Corey (Marshall), an ill-tempered alcoholic, disses everyone in his life. Corey's hung up on the fact that he's not as handsome as his hearing-impaired boyfriend, Allen (Marc Burton), who's going through some kind of crisis that we never witness. Corey hates his snippy, sarcastic mother, who ignored him as a child; every other scene is devoted to shrieking matches between the two. This is the apparent cause of Allen's malaise; when he attempts suicide, the flimsy comedy evaporates and we're left with a lot of shouting, some very bad acting, and little else.
Most of Marshall's punch lines rely on his actors breaking character, again and again, to address the audience. They toss us asides about what a lousy playwright Marshall is, or comment on the paper-thin plot. The first time an actor stopped to sneer at the dialogue he was reading, I was amused; the sixth time it wasn't so funny. All this self-conscious breaking-the-fourth-wall nonsense merely serves to slow down an already ailing narrative. I'd rather have heard about the characters' lives than their opinions about the fellow who created them.
The real trouble here is that In a Nutshell tackles too many issues, none of them in any depth. Mother-son relationships, the trials of the hearing-impaired, gay discrimination, monogamy and self-esteem are all introduced, then either glossed over or quickly abandoned. There's no time to cover this much ground, and we're left with a pile of unanswered questions -- like whether Corey plans to address his drinking problem, or why his mother is such a bitch in the first place. And what does the play's title have to do with anything?
Rather than offer any insight into these issues, Marshall merely ties up each catastrophe just before curtain. Corey vows to reconcile with his mom, and suddenly mother and son are yukking it up over mimosas. We're told that Allen feels ignored, so Corey buys him a subscription to a deaf person's newspaper and one of those phones that hearing-impaired people use, and all is suddenly swell in Boyfriendland. Even Corey's therapist, whose peripheral presence adds nothing to the story, is handed a palm: Corey fixes up the good doctor with a waiter who's been flirting with Corey throughout.
There's precious little acting here, but there's plenty of overacting--particularly on the part of Lu Richards. As Corey's hateful mother, Sadie, Richards balls her fists and stamps her feet and ends every sentence with an exclamation point. Rather than display a range of emotion, she merely turns down the volume in scenes where she's meant to be something other than pissed off. The other performances are more subtle, but no more appealing.
In fact, there's little that's appealing about In a Nutshell, a kind-of comedy that could use a thorough rewrite and a more capable cast. At one point in the story, Corey's mother complains to Corey/Marshall about the unfunny dialogue she's being made to read. Marshall quips, "I'm no Henny Youngman, but I'm trying!" to which Richards replies, "Try harder!"
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