Plenty Funny

I attended high school with some terrifically horrible people. Imagine my dismay at discovering several of them on ASU's main stage last week -- and my delight in discovering how expertly they've been drawn by playwright Jeff Hatcher and brought superbly to life by a group of talented theater students. From its knotty set design to its impressive performances, Good 'N Plenty is a near-perfect entertainment.

On paper, the setup sounds like a rerun of Room 222: Set in 1976, Good 'N Plenty is the story of teacher Richard Miller, who joins the faculty of his alma mater to teach a high school seniors course on democracy. Miller is a hip, '70s kind of instructor who wants to teach outside the lines, so he devises a game that re-creates the drug underworld and casts his students as pushers, users, narcs and attorneys. The kids use Good 'N Plenty candies as the "drugs" they buy with Monopoly money. The game goes haywire and everyone behaves very badly, but the material is topical without being gloomy and funny without an excess of silliness. Good 'N Plenty is a stylish political satire that pits society's laws against society's ills and turns up a comic winner.

Hatcher doesn't get hung up on capturing the goofball '70s; he proves how little things have changed in our world with subtle comedy. Anyone who was there in 1976 is left to draw then-and-now parallels about gas prices, turmoil in the Middle East, and moral propriety; everyone else is nudged with sly jesting, as when one character holds up a vinyl LP and Miller intones, "This is what a record looked like." Hatcher also brings us broader comedy: an exchange student who learned English from Top 40 radio and speaks only in pop song clichés, and of course the inevitable "where are they now?" spoof at the windup.

Nearly every performer is up to the challenge of Hatcher's whip-sharp material. Edward Williams Jr., who rarely leaves the stage, is an energetic and charming tour guide; his gymnastic leaps onto and off of Craig Steenerson's functional set -- a complex set of steps and risers and angled doorways -- are almost as impressive as his comic turn of phrase. And Laura Wilkinson nails her role as Cindy, the embodiment of every repressed, GPA-obsessed goody-goody you ever hated in high school.

The rest of the cast is charged with playing several characters each. The only thing more astonishing than Greg Elliott's portrayals of BMOC John and super-nerd Albert is the precision with which he switches from one to the other. Jeffrey Middleton expertly shifts from a blowhard athletics coach to a swishy poetry teacher with the help of just a baseball cap and a silk scarf; Julia Fazakerly turns sexpot Roanne Porter into scary geek Kim Macquown with simple body language and a pair of cat-eye glasses. The same can't be said of Aleah Baker, for whom a stooped posture and a walking stick aren't enough to help conjure old lady Dunlope. It's a rare young actor who can convincingly play an elderly person, and Baker's performance unfortunately falls short.

Director Jack Reuler, the artistic director of Minneapolis' Mixed Blood Theatre, turns what could easily be a bag of character-shifting gimmickry into a seamless entertainment, finessing an almost nonstop pile of light and music cues and character changes into a comic wonder. Even the stagehands, who arrive black-clad and dripping with attitude to sweep the stage between acts, are amusingly choreographed.

Donatella Giuliano's costuming is perfect; she's selected painfully accurate '70s apparel that suits each of the very different characters each performer must play. David Bianchi sports a sweat suit that's ordinary enough for grades-obsessed Ronald and slick enough for druggie Tyrell; Albert's nerdy plaid shirt is just cool enough that John might wear it. Marc Riske's lighting design helps delineate characters and time shifts, and splashes the stage with abstractly patriotic stars and stripes -- the perfect bicentennial touch to a straight-A production.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela