THE PLAYMAKERSby Julie Zaffarano
Lisa Hedges – Melanie Doyle
Sebastian Gately – Robert Shores
Female Actor #1 – Chelsea Paige
Male Actor #1 – Reginald W. Wilcox II
Female Actor #2 – Tracie Foster
Male Actor #2 – Jason R. Davis
Director – Jill Lightfoot
Stage Manager – Sara Jones
Scenic Designer – Edgar Hernandez
Costume Designer – Sakura Brunette
Sound Designer – Kenneth Hall
Lighting Designer – Kenneth Hall
Prop Design – Cathryn Harris
Reviewed Performance: 2/16/2019
Reviewed by Stacey Upton, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Zaffarano’s play centers around Lisa and Sebastian, who were at one time a successful comedy playwriting duo who became romantically involved. When their relationship crashed and burned, so did their writing careers as they went their separate ways. Now several years later, a mysterious producer has paid them to work on a new play together in hopes that something will spark. As the pair work uneasily on the show, the characters in their new play take on a life of their own and begin to reflect the writer’s lives back to them.
The play was probably better on paper than it is in production. Yes, there are some funny lines and sequences, and the writer’s construct is clever, a twist on the normal play within a play trope. This is not a terrible show, but after being billed as the best new play this theatre could find, it just didn’t live up to the high expectation. The actors give energetic and sincere performances for the most part, the set and lighting are quite good, the direction adequate and briskly paced. Rover Dramawerks has a comfortable and welcoming space to see a show. It’s just that, at least on the night reviewed, the show didn’t gel. Comedy is always hard to get right, and while there were some laughs to be found during the course of the evening, overall the play often felt flat and the comedy forced. True comedy emerges from pain, and the writer set up a very painful breakup to recover from, but the characters were not well thought-out in terms of motivation or emotional through lines. Often the actors (who were trying their very best) floundered as they were forced to say lines that didn’t ring true. They had been coached to go for the laugh by the director, which is not a terrible choice in general, but doing so lost the grounding in reality needed to make us actually care about these characters. The lead actors in particular got trapped into keeping up a sit-com verbal rhythm as opposed to creating real people in an awkward and uncomfortable situation. An additional problem was the fantasy element of the writer’s characters coming to life and teaching the writers lessons about themselves. This was an element that you wanted to work as it is a clever idea, but at the end of the day it just didn’t fly, especially in the moment when the actors were not sure if the postman who just delivered the mail was real or not. It left us wondering if they were delusional or crazy, instead of being a funny moment as seemed to be the intention.
Robert Shores as one half of the ex-comedy writing duo tried to make the most of his role, but his character Sebastian, which should have been one that we sympathize with, simply seemed focused on getting back with his partner so he could have sex again. The character of Sebastian has an aged Charlie Brown man-child vibe to him that felt creepy as opposed to a flawed leading man, which would have worked better. There is a late explanation that somewhat mitigates Sebastian’s horn-dog approach, but as written the character is unlikeable. Shores does his very best with his lovely smile and good energy, but the writing and lack of human motivations is just against this happening. Shores is a seasoned actor and understands comedy and how to keep the pace up, but without the backbone of a character that makes emotional sense, he didn’t have a lot to work with.
His ex-writing partner played by Melanie Doyle did a good job of reacting to his one-note personality, fending his awkward advances off with glib retorts. Doyle did her best to be vulnerable and honest through the course of the evening and as a result her character came across as the most grounded. Her reactions to both her ex-partner and the fantasy characters around her were solid and worked well. She managed some awkward staging that was written into the script as well as anyone could perched up on a dining room table delivering her lines to the side wall. Doyle is a lovely actress, but casting someone more matched in age to Shores would have perhaps served the material better.
As Female Actor #1, Chelsea Paige did a terrific job playing multiple pert roles. She was clearly “in character” in each one. Each of her roles had a different speaking cadence and alert take on the world. She seemed at ease on the stage and that she was having fun. She was particularly effective as a young businessperson glued to her cell phone.
A standout in this show was Reginald W. Wilcox II as Male Actor #1. His verve and enthusiasm for performing was clear, and he brought some much-needed sincerity to the proceedings as he tried to woo and win a girlfriend. This actor has charm and grace on the stage. He had another very fun role that swans through the play on occasion, and he never failed to give us a heartfelt laugh. Wilcox took each scene he was in and made it his own.
Another solid performance was by Tracie Foster as Actress #2. She also has an ease about her onstage and was very giving with her fellow performers in their scenes together. Her take on a salty grandmother pandered to a stereotype simply for laughs, but that again seemed to be a script problem, not one stemming from Foster’s acting choices. She truly bloomed in the second half of the play when as a character she is living true emotions. It was in these moments this actress shone.
The same holds true for Jason R. Davis who played Actor #2. When the time came for him to be “real” he was moving and articulate and the play came to life. Davis has wonderful stage presence and soulful eyes that worked to his advantage throughout the proceedings, even when forced into a silly bit about confusing a sperm bank with a real bank.
As a director, Jill Lightfoot created good staging, especially in a restaurant scene when all six actors ended up in the same scene. Lightfoot “gets” comedy and she created a lovely ensemble feel for her performers in this piece. One hopes she will be able to take on more a more serious show, as the scene work in the “drama” portions of this play showed what she is capable of. It was unclear from this performance if Lightfoot’s actual vision was to play to the fantasy/cartoonish elements of the script or if it was simply that the play itself needed a workshop or two to balance the character motivations before being brought to a full production.
The lighting and sound design by Kenneth Hall was very good, as was the scenic design by Edgar Hernandez of a tacky bachelor pad that transforms into a bar, restaurant or part of someone’s home. This was a prop-heavy show and properties design by Cathryn Harris was excellent. The costumes by Sakura Brunette were versatile and true to the characters presented onstage.
The writer of this show has accumulated some impressive close finishes for her other playwriting work in a variety of contests. It’s no small feat to be a semi-finalist in the O’Neill National 2017 Playwrights Contest. She has the start of a good play with “The PlayMakers,” and frequently scores with her jokes. Again, Rover Dramawerks is to be commended on taking a chance with a new play. They have a fantastic reputation in the local theatre arena for good reason. To be fair, several of the audience members truly had a good time on the night reviewed, and no one left the theatre at intermission. The cast and crew deserve full marks for doing their very best with the material at hand.
221 W. Parker Rd. Ste 580, Plano TX, 75023
Remaining shows: Thurs 21st -Saturday 23rd at 8pm, and Saturday 23rd at 3pm