A Doublewide, Texas, Christmas at Newport Playhouse: This Ain’t No Chekhov, Dammit

Newport Playhouse deploys an obviously talented cast in their production of A Doublewide, Texas, Christmas who struggle valiantly to elevate a script from the writing team billing themselves as “Jones, Hope, Wooten” – actually Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten – who collectively have authored nearly two dozen plays that possess all the humor, charm, and originality of television sitcoms. Relying on stereotypical bumpkins reminiscent of Green Acres, their plays display only slightly more affection for the quaintness of the American South than did William Tecumseh Sherman.

A Doublewide, Texas, Christmas at Newport Playhouse

A Doublewide, Texas, Christmas at Newport Playhouse

This Christmas play is a sequel to their Doublewide, Texas, which weirdly is a non-Christmas play involving a year-round Nativity scene. In the earlier play, the occupants of four house trailers and a tool shed on unincorporated land decide to incorporate as the town of Doublewide, population 10, in order to defend against annexation by the nearby town of Tugaloo. In the later play, the residents are waiting for their incorporation papers to arrive from the county.

As in a sitcom, ridiculously eccentric characters run in and out of scenes, spouting seemingly clever dialogue where one can frequently see the jokes coming 30 seconds in advance. With a run-time of 1h40m in a single act and no intermission, that sort of thing wears out its welcome at about the 22-minute mark unless you are a fan of this style of comedy.

To their credit, the cast does not take the production seriously, employing such devices as deliberately bad wigs, effectively winking and nodding to the audience that “this ain’t no Anton Chekhov, dammit.” That the capable cast is clearly having a lot of fun is the main redeeming factor, as their fun is contagious enough to turn the punishing script into watchable entertainment. It would be impossible to summarize the mostly non-existent plot, consisting of disconnected parts that thread together everything from a sweet potato that looks like Lady Bird Johnson to raccoons that engage in sophisticated plotting and scheming. Insofar as there is a plot it would be a spoiler to explain it.

The play opens with a rambling monologue from “Big Ethel” (Cindy Killavey), a licensed vocational nurse (what would be called a licensed practical nurse in RI) at the Stairway to Heaven nursing home – none of the jokes are subtle. It then moves to Bronco Betty’s Buffeteria where “Georgia Dean” (Leslie Zeile) and her daughter “Lark Barken” (Katrina Rossi) are getting ready to visit their boss in the hospital where his number of cardiac stents has finally crossed into double-digits. “Caprice Crumpler” (Mary Pevear) is the town’s self-obsessed “celebrity” known for playing dead bodies modeling coffins in television ads for the local funeral home, mother to “Joveeta Crumpler” (Rebecca Christie), the town mayor, and to “‘Baby’ Crumpler” (Daniel J. Holmes), the village idiot as well as police chief and fire chief. We meet the elderly “Haywood Sloggett” (W. Richard Johnson) who has taken in his sister “Patsy Price” (Sandi Nicastro), a difficult and unstable woman who has previously alienated everyone so much they ran her out of town. (Whether it is worse to be notorious in a small town or a big one is a question that reminds me of Dorothy Parker’s advice to her husband, to whom she supposedly said, “It’s not good to be the town drunk, especially not in Manhattan.”) Lark’s father is Haywood’s son “Nash Sloggett” (Michael Johnson), described by Georgia Dean as the one that got away – quite literally by running off 24 years ago. “Harley Dobbs” (Jim Killavey) appears by voice-over but not on stage.

The ensemble cast is uniformly excellent, although individual performances are notable in direct proportion to the outrageousness of their characters. Nicastro, playing by far the craziest character, especially shines because she gets to do so much and does it well. Pevear effectively capitalizes on opportunities playing the second-craziest character, due to her over-the-top delusions of celebrity. Christie, playing the seemingly most grounded character, solidly earns the spotlight in a scene where she cracks up during a live television interview. Holmes is trapped in a slapstick role defined by his racoon-related persecution complex, but he does the best he can with it. Rossi is likewise trapped in a role as the sweet-but-stupid innocent, although the character turns out to be the central catalyst for the ramshackle plot. Richard Johnson is a clearly gifted actor who manages to extract what few nuggets can be found in a role that is a pretty desolate mine. Zeile and Cindy Killavey drew roles that are just too “normal” to stand out much in a town of crazy people, although the latter’s opening monologue is critically important.

After the show, audience members are welcomed at no extra charge to a 40-minute cabaret performance with music director Kyle Medeiros and a cast consisting of Christie, Nicastro, Rossi, both Johnsons, and both Killaveys, as well as Frances Lynn Howard, Travis Krening, Jonathan Perry (theater owner), and Olivia M. Sahlin (stage manager for the play). Consisting almost entirely of song and dance, most by the ensemble but featuring a few solos, all of the music was Christmas themed. Highlights included Sahlin’s solo performance of “Santa Baby,” more Madonna than Eartha Kitt, and a barbershop quartet cover by the male cast members of Bob Rivers’ “The Restroom Door Said Gentlemen,” a parody of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Medeiros, in character and costume as a crotchety old lady from New Bedford, performed a comedy routine that, while well-received by the audience, comprised jokes so old they had moss growing on them when Henny Youngman was still single.

If you’re looking for a few hours of light entertainment – with emphasis on “light” in the sense of intellectually undemanding like a tv sitcom – optionally bookended by a meal (lunch before matinee shows, dinner before evening shows) and a cabaret, then Newport Playhouse certainly delivers a crowd-pleaser. It would be intriguing to see this cast perform a script with more substantive content, but that may not sell tickets.

A Doublewide, Texas, Christmas, by Jones, Hope, Wooten, directed by Tony Annicone, at Newport Playhouse, 102 Connell Highway, Newport. Through Dec 31. One act, 1h40m, no intermission. Free off-street parking. Handicap accessible. Restaurant and full bar available. Tel: (401)848-PLAY (7529). Web: newportplayhouse.com/upcoming-shows-1 Facebook: facebook.com/events/347385219136641

 

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