Baggage at Newport Playhouse

We are all seeking that special someone, that perfect person who will complete us. Dating has never been easier, with websites and apps allowing us to choose from a variety of potential mates within minutes. It should be easy to find The One, right? Wrong. As the characters in Baggage show us, sometimes it’s not about finding the perfect one, but the one who is perfectly wrong for us.

It’s the perfect plot for a romantic comedy. Two highly annoying New Yorkers meet when they accidentally take each other’s baggage at the airport. The two decide to start dating in order to get over previous bad relationships. The audience is taken through arguments, bad dates, reconciliation and self-discovery. We know how this will end, as the often self-referencing script points out on several occasions.

If you’ve ever tried online dating, the routine of reading through too similar profiles can get really monotonous really fast. Unfortunately, that’s exactly how it feels to watch Newport Playhouse’s production of Sam Bobrick’s Baggage. Daniel Lee White’s direction misses the mark in this production. The script gives several opportunities for comedy, and with such a thin script to work with, he needed to milk the material. Instead, he goes for cheap laughs, and the characters are completely static with so little variation that it becomes hard to watch.

The play begins with Bradley (Michael Gregory) loudly banging on the door of Phyllis’ (Olivia Sahlin) apartment. Gregory makes a hilariously over-the-top entrance, but has nowhere to take that energy. Phyllis is referred to as strong and controlling, but what the audience gets is a robot.  Neither her tone or movements vary throughout much of the play’s two acts. Since we know from the beginning how the play will end, it would have been nice to get some surprises from the characters. At the very least, some vocal variety would have helped.

Rounding out the cast are Rick Bagley playing Dr. Jonathan Alexander and Kristina Horan playing Mitzi Cartwright. Both characters are written as plot devices, but provide us with breaks in the monotony of Bradley and Phyllis, giving the audience some of the funniest moments of the evenings. Mitzi is full of bohemian energy as she struts around in her stilettos, moving furniture around and talking about her three ex-husbands. Dr. Jonathan Alexander’s character is used to fight against the romcom tropes, but ends up being one himself when he falls for Mitzi. Dr. Alexander provides one of the funniest scenes in the play when he breaks the fourth wall to issue a personality test to Bradley and Phyllis to show them just how wrong they are for each other. Like with most of the play, the timing in this scene needs to speed up to really deliver laughs, but it was a welcome change of pace.

The set for Baggage is as interesting as the lead characters. We are told that we are seeing Phyllis’ apartment, and indeed it is treated as such. Mitzi describes it as “perfect,” with furniture being exactly where you would expect it to go. She says it has no personality, which reflects the interpretation of Phyllis’s character in this production. The set we see has the look and feel of a worn waiting room. The walls are painted the gold of a doctor’s office. The worn green leather couch at the center of the stage blends with the worn green industrial carpet used to cover the floors. There are matching frayed wingback chairs to each side of the couch, with dark wood end tables. On one table, there is an unexplained trophy. There is also a bookshelf that is never used by any of the characters, but contains romantic novels alongside books about accounting and gardening. The novels make sense given that we’re told Phyllis is an editor, mostly for romance novels, but gardening? In New York City?

Baggage tries hard not to be a romantic comedy cliche. However, this production would have done well to give in to some of the elements of a romantic comedy. The annoying characters could also be lovable, and have other personality traits. The audience wants to see why these two would fall for each other, but the flatness of the portrayals here gives us nothing to like. We’re told how the story will play out, and it does exactly what it says it will. Things happen because they playwright says so, with no explicable motivation. While a romantic comedy is often unsurprising, the characters usually make up for it. We don’t get that salvation in this production.

Baggage by Sam Bobrick is playing through September 2 at the Newport Playhouse. Purchase tickets by calling 401-848-7529 or by visiting newportplayhouse.com. Come early for the buffet dinner, and stay after for the cabaret!

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