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In Playing Juliet/Casting Othello, playwright Caleen Sinnette Jennings worked witty variations on the two Shakespeare plays she referenced in her title while exploring issues of character and race. In Inns & Outs, a five-playlet evening that just won her a grant from the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays, she’s exploring the same general issues while working variations on Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite.
It would be hard not to see this as something of a comedown. Still, when an author writes with as much humor and generosity as Jennings does, audiences would have to be nuts not to follow her wherever she wants to lead. In this case, that means tagging along to a New England inn, where—in a peach-on-pink sendup of hotel garishness designed by Jordana Adelman—five sets of characters will struggle through five separate holidays, before the actors join forces to celebrate New Year’s Eve.
The first playlet, Memorial Day, finds a conservative black businessman and his liberal black girlfriend trying to consummate their relationship while sniping at each other over everything from Clarence Thomas to welfare reform. He’s hot to trot; she’s horrified at the prospect of sleeping with the enemy. A truce, of sorts, is reached.
Once the bed’s been remade, the lights come up on Independence Day, in which a sharp-tongued mom who has stuffed her luggage with baby-shower items discovers that her daughter and son-in-law are contemplating a divorce rather than a child. “I’m spreading out the diapers,” she wails, “and you’re throwing in the towel.”
Another pause for room-straightening, and Labor Day brings a pair of empty-nester couples—one black, the other white—to their 10th joint vacation at this same inn. Oddly, both their marriages and their friendships are fraying—which explains why one member of each couple is drinking way too heavily.
After intermission, in Christmas, a street-smart teenager turns out to have some unexpected (and supernatural) answers to the prayers of a recently widowed working stiff. And finally, with one last change of towels, New Year’s Eve rolls around, and a wealthy woman who has ditched her friends and family finds a soul mate in one of the inn’s housekeepers.
Each of these brief sketches—they average about 30 minutes in length—starts out brightly and works its way through a thicket of snappy jests to a thoroughly sentimental conclusion. Racial issues arise in all five, and Jennings is smart enough not to try to wrap up intractable social problems and tie them with a bow. Still, when she leaves the personal conflicts engendered by big issues up in the air, she does so with enough sitcom snap that they seem a tad too comfortably resolved. After a couple of overly pat fade-outs, you stop worrying about how character problems will work themselves out and settle for being entertained along the way.
Fortunately, the playwright has a wry way with one-liners, and the acting company delivers them with the requisite zest. Beverly Cosham is deft and droll as two of the evening’s tippling matrons. Jewell Robinson (who was suffering from laryngitis on opening night) managed to bring different caustic shadings to her motherly advice in one playlet and her house-cleaning wisdom in another. Strawberry Catubo is flat-out delicious as a street-smart, ghost-channeling urchin. And those are just the flashiest performances in an evening where everyone’s pretty sharp.
Chalk that up, at least partly, to Lisa Rose Middleton’s staging. When a director gets laughs with set changes, you have to figure she’s doing something right, and Middleton’s devoted enough attention to detail to have the between-scenes room-straightening done by hotel employees who reveal individual quirks as they pick up towels and champagne bottles. The director also finds humor between the lines in the playlets themselves—enough to make Inns & Outs a pleasant, if slight, holiday outing.
From its opening seconds, Vaudeville: Humor on the 20th Century Stage wants you to hear echoes. Immediately following a taped reminder from management that patrons should locate the nearest exit and turn off cell phones and beepers, a fellow called “the Professor” steps forward with the sort of pre-curtain announcement management tended to make in entertainment emporiums some 80 years ago.
“The Mintner sisters and their fabulous dancing mules,” he says, have been delayed, but not to worry, they’ll be replaced by an equally fabulous act, yet to be determined.
Welcome to Amateur Night in a time-worn Buffalo burlesque house. It’s the sort of place where singers follow comics and comics follow animal acts, where a sketch’s success is measured in the ratio of coins to rotten vegetables that pelt the stage, and where immigrant audiences speak so many different languages that the only way performers can hope to connect with everyone is to trade in the broadest of ethnic stereotypes.
Veteran comic Joe Laskey (Michael Stebbins) knows the drill; newcomer Chester Guy (Bruce Nelson) doesn’t…but he learns. When Guy gets jeers and catcalls while trying to put over a sly routine in Yiddish, Laskey suggests that he try English and broaden his gestures until they’re big, bold, and funny in their own right. The suggestions work, the two comics bond, and soon the team of Laskey & Guy is making the leap from burlesque to vaudeville’s Orpheum Circuit with the sort of teamwork and timing that puts punch in the hoariest punch lines:
“You know, I been waitin’ here for an hour.”
“So, has it come yet?”
With his wry delivery and flat vowels, Stebbins seems almost to be channeling Jack Benny on occasion, while Nelson makes Guy a puppy-dog-ish mix of Bob Hope and Red Skelton. And when Laskey & Guy recruit Irene LaFont—a soubrette who once admitted to the name Irma Goldstein and who now thinks she’s a huge star—to brighten the act, Maureen Kerrigan gives her some of the brass and sass of a latter-day Martha Raye.
Director Lee Mikeska Gardner and writer Allyson Currin have fashioned their eveninglong homage so that this trio’s ascent to stardom occupies the first act and their fall from grace takes up the second. Interspersed with genuine routines from vaudeville’s heyday—some of which haven’t been performed for decades, but all of which have a sweet familiarity—are scenes that chronicle the demise of the Orpheum Circuit through that of the group.
Act 1 ends with the buzz and crackle of radio static, and Act 2 is dominated by the flicker of movie projectors, so it would be clear where things are headed even without the foreshadowing of such lines as “I’ve got enough brilliant ideas to get us through 1967.” By then, variety shows were dead and the only place audiences could see a semblance of the old routines was in high-priced Broadway revivals.
What the folks at Washington Jewish Theatre want audiences to remember is that although there’s nothing quite like vaudeville in today’s entertainment mix, there are elements of the form everywhere. Its children can be found at the Kennedy Center Honors, its grandchildren in the touring company of Chicago, and its great-grandchildren on MTV. When Jerry Lewis and Dick Van Dyke are asked who inspired their careers, they invariably cite Stan Laurel (with whom both studied), and when Jim Carrey is asked the same question, he cites Lewis and Van Dyke. Actual routines may not be handed down from act to act any more, but styles certainly are.
In Vaudeville, you’re encouraged to recognize how those styles evolved from Weber & Fields to Seinfeld & Costanza. Understandably, the show has something of an archival feel, but it only rarely steps over the line into archaeology, and even its lapses are instructive. I confess that I was mystified, for instance, when a monologue from Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House popped up in the evening’s second act. Then I read a program note indicating that vaudevilleans once thought they could class up their stages by showcasing dramatic readings by big stars. Makes sense. Kerrigan plays the speech so expansively that it ends up approximating a Bea Lillie routine, which can’t be quite how an Eleonora Duse or a Sarah Bernhardt would have done it. Still, it’s an intriguing oddity—one of many in what will be, for fans of the form, an intriguing evening. CP