When the 1967 film version of Neil Simon's play "Barefoot in the Park" debuted, the Chicago Reader called it "a decent example of a vanished genre - the small character comedy."
That description also fits Julie Jensen's "Wait!," the play currently experiencing its West Coast premiere through May 30 at Perseverance Theatre in Douglas.
The cast of four presents eight characters. Ekatrina Oleksa portrays the central character, Wendy Burger, a theater wanna-be who progresses in roles as the plot unfolds but will never be able to play Lady Macbeth.
Doniece Falcon is the hair-tossing O' Vixen, My Vixen - a nom de drama she says was inspired by the poem "O' Captain, My Captain." O' Vixen is never at a loss for words - but 22 percent of them are "like."
Chris Kauffman plays Burger's father, a man who uses cases of motor oil as seating, theater entrepreneur Lu, and "Greek" old man Hazar.
Emily Hamel Windover portrays Modesto, a ham-fisted meat wrapper enamored of Mr. Burger, the "Greek" (actually Romanian) old woman Jen-Ya who befriends Wendy, and Floating Piñata Head, an actress who thinks scarves are transformative and child audiences are the easiest to please. Miss Head's claim to fame is having studied with "the great Maude Mae Babcock who was in the original production of 'Sturdy, Sturdy Highland Lassie.'"
As the play opens, Wendy has dropped out of beauty school to drive a truck for UPS, but her father thinks she needs to change her image.
"People could think you're a tard - because you never talk enough," he chides her.
Lu, the guy Wendy used to date in high school, returns to town "speaking the language of dreams." He invents a best friend of Ophelia part for Wendy.
"He gets the ideas, and I do the heavy lifting," says Wendy, describing their relationship.
All four actors give scintillating, well-modulated performances, taking full advantage of the stage and the apron that projects into the audience.
"Wait!" supplies plenty of belly laughs for the buck. Take Hazar's pidgin description of the plot of "Hamlet": "Blue light, talk talk, then all dead." (A blue light is used to portray the title character because the actor cast in the part has been arrested - again.)
Wendy has been trying to expand her vocabulary with a correspondence writing course, and describes O' Vixen's Ophelia: "Your madness was like a dying cat on a storm-tossed sea. Your agony was like the burning flesh of beasts on fire."
A particularly funny bit is the meal Wendy shares with Jen-Ya and Hazar. The menu consists of Fruit Loops. Hazar tries to get Wendy to discuss God and politics, but she is engrossed in a televised performance by Jane Wyman.
A couple of running gags do yeoman's service. One is Mr. Burger's substance abuse, which often spins off into his trying to dig up his dead partner, Studs. The other is a sight gag, Wendy's tossing her hair over her face like a descending curtain after she has delivered one of her "little shows" - examples of lines she has learned as audition pieces.
Director Anita Maynard-Losh has ably directed the cast, making sure that the body language used to differentiate their personas did not escalate into mime or shrink into nervous tics. When Oleksa visibly spits in order to "properly" pronounce her initial p's and ending t's, it's a nicely calibrated touch.
"Wait!" is subtitled "onstage, offstage and backstage chaos at a small town theatre." Lu attempts to snare patrons by lying about the 1909 opera house, saying that John Wilkes Booth played there and Drew Barrymore was born in the wings. Most of the donations he receives are useless - like two dozen wheelbarrows, or blow-up Easter bunnies from Fun with Fabrics in the nearby town of Chinchilla.
"Wait!" relies a bit too much on silly names like Chinchilla, Walrus and Wendy Burger for its laughs, and on cheap shots like the gun taped to Mr. Burger's chest. Overall, however, it's an amusing look at the dramatic aspirations of various personalities and at a variety of opinions about theater. The Romanians study Wendy like "children with a bug." Her father believes she is "a good daughter" because she can perform "little shows." He sees Ms. Head as "a woman with class." As the play closes, the UPS is still Wendy's day job.
Her current "role" is stage hand, but she believes she has a "career."
O' Vixen sums it all up: "Life is what the theater is based upon. And that's so deep when you think about it ... life ... theater ... life ... wow."
Performances of "Wait!" continue at 7 p.m. tonight at Perseverance Theatre in Douglas; at 8 p.m. Friday, May 28; at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 29; and at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 30. Tickets available at www.perseverancetheatre.org, Hearthside Books, at the door or by calling the theater at 364-2421 x35.
Ann Chandonnet reviews plays for the Empire.
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