Bernard Farrell has written his first play to be set, and open, outside his native Ireland. It’s not, however, dislodging that has undone this journeyman playwright’s latest work. He just seems to have packed too light. Set in Milan and premiering at the commissioning Laguna Playhouse in Orange County, California, The Verdi Girls is a bloated romp in need of a spine. One sees splinters of marrow in there, but Farrell will have his work cut out for him getting to it, and building upon it.
In its premiere staging, Artistic Director Andrew Barnicle goes after broad laughs, which is really all he’s got to rely upon, and gets what there are of them. However, his fine cast can milk for only so long jokes that are not only meager but based in side stories that are not that interesting. It’s not that a play built for laughs isn't welcome relief these days. The play just needs to feel supported by more than a mechanic’s creeper, ready to roll in any direction to catch a drop of punch line. It’s doubly painful when a rich backdrop and a decent ensemble feel squandered under those wheels.
In a nutshell: an annual convention of Verdi aficionados has become a reunion of sorts for two couples – Linda (Elyse Mirto) and Steve; Patricia (Traci L. Crouch) and Peter (Bo Foxworth) – and the event’s pompous director, Oliver (Gregory North), and his dotty wheelchair-bound mother (Patricia Cullen). During the past year, Steve, who was by all accounts any man's better and any woman's bedder, died in a car accident. Linda appears determined to carry on the special tradition in his honor. In his stead is an Irish Verdi fan, Breda (Katharine McEwan), whom she and Steve befriended in a Verdi online chat room. Linda has since convinced Breda to attend her first festival as Linda's roommate.
Another important tradition is Oliver's Verdi quiz, which Peter has always finished as runner-up to the superior Steve. Oliver, a site gag in his Verdi top hat and cape, promises these questions will be tougher than ever. He also promises that his 83-year-old mother will not disrupt the events as she has in the past. On reprieve from her dreaded senior day care, she might be expected to behave in a way that keeps her out. Mario (Vasili Bogazianos), who provides both hotel security and bellman duties for these fifth floor rooms, rounds out the cast of characters.
Isolating some of the creakier plot devices and character contrivances from the building blocks for rewrites is not hard. Breda introduces herself as a chiropodist before the too-convenient disclosure by Oliver that he is a proud foot fetishist. This, after Mario has mangled his English to good effect in a funny first scene, and before he then memorizes the difficult quiz questions and answers in English. Oliver’s mother, an off-stage, out of control lunatic in Act I, arrives in Act II as a caring woman with an irrepressible impish side, simply out to help her son enjoy life. The logic behind helping him by ruining his event in front of his friends seems to go unchallenged by the others in the play. And, though Linda routinely turned a blind eye to Steve's regular philandering, it is the verification of one affair that leads to the play's climactic showdown.
This curve ball is inserted by Farrell as a last-minute stent to save his wobbly parade balloon and keep it from going all whoopie cushion over us bystanders. But it’s too little too late. And it begs the question why the Breda-Linda relationship wasn't more of a cat-and-mouse game from the beginning, perhaps with those operatic overtones that seem to be waiting for something to do. Instead, more than half the play is filled with Pete's irritating need to prove himself better than Steve and mom’s rolling sociopath routine.
Healing the play, and getting to its heart, might begin by leaving mom offstage and saving the theater one salary. (If we need to steal the trophy in front of the audience, let the rainstorm send a power-disrupting bolt at the hotel and send a PA into the darkened room in the wheelchair.) Her air horn can still get laughs, as can her catcalls from the gallery. Though hopefully less will be more when they’re crowded out by more exchanges between Linda and Breda. (And getting more out of Mario than his one joke about women sharing a room, which gets run into ground.)
And, though it pains me to say it about the actor arguably doing the best work, McEwan is miscast. It would help the play and the Linda-Breda denouement, if Breda was not so sexy, not a challenge to Linda in the looks department. Here's the one place the production undercuts Farrell where he wrote it right. He has written Breda to be a woman we can believe men have always passed by. McEwan is not such a woman. The casting choice was made to have all the Verdi Girls be attractive. Great for posters, but not for plotting. Giving Farrell what the script calls for would better explain her time spent in chat rooms, her solo ventures to New York and Milan, and her all-important desire to meet Linda and talk about Steve's importance to her. It would also help explain her ultimate inability to fulfill that desire until it is yanked from her.
Then, as music swells, they both can grieve, and embrace, and then go resurrect that broken good luck charm that's waiting at the bottom of the wastebasket.
CREDITS: by Bernard Farrell, directed by Andrew Barnicle WITH Vasili Bogazianos, Traci L. Crouch, Patricia Cullen, Bo Foxworth, Katharine McEwan, Elyse Mirto, Gregory North PRODUCTION Dwight Richard Odle, set; Julie Keen, costumes; Paulie Jenkins, lights; David Edwards, sound; Rebecca Green, stage management
World Premiere Commissioned by Laguna Playhouse/Suzanne and James Mellor
Laguna Playhouse • May 29-July 1 (Opened June 2; rev. 6/2)