'TIL BETH DO US PART
by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope & Jamie Wooten
Reviewed Performance 2/13/2011
Reviewed by Gina Robertson, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
You know, there's a special little thrill enjoyed by persons of a certain generation and beyond--only we know that startled moment of pleasure that comes with sudden, unexpected exposure to the theme song from one of a dozen or so classic sit-coms much loved in our youth. Pity the youngsters whose ears are stroked with the mellow tones of "WKRP in Cincinnati" and their only thought is "what a lame song, and what is a WKRP anyway?"
You can enjoy a series of these special little thrills at Runway Theatre's production of `Til Beth Do Us Part, where all our best loved sit-com musical themes serve as an introduction to what is meant to be the very Essence of Sit-Com as a live performance.[s1] Director Donny Avery brings to stage his appreciation for those old TV shows that were so corny they kept us entertained and tuning in week after week for years!
Bob Janitz is Gibby Hayden, a meteorologist whose lazy habits and middle-aged complacency cause his wife to turn to her newly hired assistant for support, consideration, and household help so she can focus on her busy career. Janitz not only nails the over-acting style and broad physical comedy of the genre, but he uses 70's sit-com formula to convey deep love and devotion to his wife. He craves her, it is clear, and resents her work as his only rival until her assistant, Beth (Nancy Lamb), arrives to make the loss of his wife more near a certainty!
Dana Harrison is Gibby's wife Suzannah, hyper-focused and ultra-stressed with her global sales career in the demanding chocolate industry. She plays Suzannah as professional and capable, yet just insecure enough so she's capable of turning to a stranger for reassurance. Believing her husband has let her down already, she can't let him then proceed to take away the sweet, southern lady who replaced him as the wind beneath her wings.
Lamb's face is pure comedic genius. If there's a sit-com award for over-the-top exaggeration and perfectly placed features, hilariously combined in one delightfully layered facial expression, Lamb must win it at once. That face is all we need to know about Miss Beth and what she's got planned for the Haydens, but the character also possesses a southern accent as thick as maple syrup in January, and this is supposedly a large part of her charm. Lamb's accent is weak, which can be excused by a major reveal in the climax of the play, but making the accent as real as possible would further emphasize how dangerous this sweet little woman really is.
Andrew Burns and Melissa Hartman Couture are Hank and Margo, the Haydens' formerly married friends, both of them shameful scene-stealers at every turn of the plot. These two were given the funniest, most unforgettable elements of the 1970's sit-com formula: outrageous costumes, melodramatic entrances, unrepentant vanity, in advertently homosexual situations misinterpreted by an unsuspecting witness, cross dressing, being shoved in a closet to hide, etc.
Hank's impersonation of Suzannah's business associate from London in the climax is setup in the first act when he puts on the accent and phone pranks her. Here again, this becomes maximum hilarious if Burns nails the British accent in both acts, but he never even comes close to sounding true Brit in either case.
Performing an accent brings the opportunity to produce one of two reactions: "Impressive! Nice job!" Or more like: "*Groan* That's supposed to be Irish?"
There isn't much middle ground because the moment someone hears you affecting an accent, that's all she's listening to when you speak, to see if she can sense the break in your accent. In cases like this, where characters switch into an accent and back out again, this becomes even more impressive to audiences and entertaining to watch when it's done well.
Sadly, under the radar is Karen Jordan making a late appearance as Celia, Susannah's British associate who arrives at the Hayden household in mid-lunacy as Hank has already assumed her persona in full disguise. Celia's arrival sets off a frenzy of madcap chasing around, on and off stage, as her imposter is hidden from her and major plot points are brought to conclusion. Given all this stage action, a colorful and talented cast of characters already holding the full attention of the audience, and a loud, large man in a purple dress and wig who insists on sitting with his skirt hiked up and legs wide and proud to reveal a bit of what he's got, Jordan's ability to grab more than a moment of notice is quite remarkable. She plays Celia with uptight British dignity, manners, and becomes something of the understated "straight man" for all the zany characters to bounce off of. Yet she holds her own and delivers a couple of great ironic moments in her own right. Briefly, to mention again, her accent is not anything close to authentic, and nothing sounds less like a Brit than a British accent done badly by an American. This detail really stands out in such a performance because each time the audience notices the accent isn't right, it becomes more removed from the story.
Avery mentions the importance of casting in a show like this, and only such thoughtful consideration could have put this cast together in precisely the right way to achieve a perfect 1970's sit-com dynamic. Recall the super-couples of the era: George and Weezy, Helen and Tom Willis, Archie and Edith, the Ropers, Fred and Ethel Murtz. Remember how sizzling hot those couples were together? You couldn't watch them in a scene together without imagining them in bed, rolling around and sweaty, right? Ewww!! Of course not! Who was the genius who figured out that sexless married couples are absolutely hilarious and lovable when the show's meant to be corny instead of real?
There isn't so much as a hint of sexual chemistry between the married Haydens or their divorced friends. Even when Hank and Margo are revealed to be making out in the closet, practically on the verge of gettin' it on, they might just as well be playing a rousing game of Monopoly for all the sex apparent in their energy. When Gibby and Susannah try to work up a little sump'n on the sofa, then later disappear into the closet to end the show, instead of the passionate, naked couple commencing right upon each other after years of sexless marriage, their energy is more like checking the fridge for expired food to throw out.
Strangely enough, it is the chemistry between Janitz and Couture?Gibby and Margo?that shows most clearly what's not there between the `real' romantic characters in this play. These two are fun to watch. With only a short dancing scene and a brief gripping of each other in panic during dramatic climax, it's a shame the needs of this show didn't allow more.
Peak hilarity is achieved in this piece when all the classic elements and characters from the golden years of situation comedies are presented and then turned up to full volume. Avery's got all the right instincts, and the cast very nearly delivers to perfection, but something less than the peak is achieved here, possibly more the fault of sloppy writing than any failure in performance. Just as the desired moment of equilibrium is reached, when the actions and characters are so bizarre and entertaining that we forget to notice how corny and unrealistic they are, someone cracks the image with something modern or "real," and the spell is broken. Gibby's use of the phrase "buzz kill" at one point is an example of this, and another is when Beth makes the "I'm watching you" gesture with her fingers like Deniro in that recent Fokker movie. Although the setting for this story is "present day," the feeling is very retro, and it still works in a very funny way if it's modern day but everyone behaves as though it's a 1977 "Three's Company" episode.
Set Designer Jeff Mizener and Props Coordinator Karen Matheny deserve mention for the quirky set pieces and props. Before Beth's influence, each piece of home d?cor is uglier than the last, which is another retro element giving the feel of decades past. This could work in a "present day" setting, again, as long as the characters themselves match their retro home in the way they talk and act.
A better solution is wanted for the set representing Hank's bachelor pad where Gibby stays after being kicked out of his home. It's two lawn chairs set up on the floor toward house left. Not only are the actors difficult to see there for most of the audience, but the removal of those set pieces commences as story action returns to the Hayden household on stage. Set removal is a big distraction from the stage action taking place too near as it's happening.
Both Director Avery and Patsy Dausset arranged costumes, nailing it fantastically at the same rate as missing it completely. Margo's clothes are truly something to see, worth the price of admission and more. Gibby seems to dress exactly as he would do, casual but new stylish shirts with collars, until he moves into his blue period while separated from his wife. He stays at Hank's where he wears a tee shirt with a hole in it. The Celia dresses are very, very purple, and Hank's wig has character enough to make a whole new character out of the man beneath the dress.
Costumes for Suzannah and Beth are a disappointment. Suzannah's business suits with short skirt and heels are not flattering, nor do they seem to apply to what seems to be a working-from-home type career woman. It's never clearly indicated that she has dressed for the office and only just returned home, and she's always in the throes of conducting business, so she gives more of an impression that she works from home most of the time. If that were the case, she'd be wearing comfortable clothes. Even keeping the formal business attire, the pants suit she wears in the final scene seems more like what she would wear each day and looks more professional.
Beth, on the other hand, absolutely would wear a dress every day, but she's been given pants and blouses in colors not typically favored by southern ladies. Since the audience sees her as the genuine article for the majority of the play, she should dress like the part to keep from giving off a premature non-southern aura. Her pants are non-descript neutral colors, and the blouses are too large and shapelessly draped across the top of them. No southern woman would dress in such an unfeminine way. Beth would wear a light colored dress with close-fitting bodice and perhaps pastel floral type prints. She'd probably wear pearls too.
The only thing missing is the laugh track played after every remark or action that could be considered even remotely funny, and the recorded laughter erupting in intensity far beyond the actual amount of humor in the remark. With that and a good mellow "Beth" theme song to hum along to, this really would be worth tuning in for every week!
TIL BETH DO US PART-Runs through Sunday, February 27th
Runway Theatre, 215 North Dooley St.Grapevine, TX 76051
For tickets and information, please call 817-488-4842