Self Help Gets Audiences Laughing

-2SelfHelp_NWPTThere’s a lot to savor in Rhode Island theater over the next several weeks, as most companies are opening their seasons with an array of thought-provoking dramas, twisted comedies, reimagined classics and the usual offering of large-scale musicals. Among all this choice, however, some outfits have been steadily staying the course and providing consistent entertainment that doesn’t attempt to break any new ground, but simply provides an enjoyable evening (or afternoon) for a decent price. Perhaps the most consistent of those stalwarts, the often-overlooked Newport Playhouse and Cabaret Restaurant, adds to their list of slamming door sex farces with Norm Foster’s irreverently satisfying Self Help. Besides the casually retro atmosphere of the restaurant/cabaret (dinner is not a necessity to see the show, so the moniker of “dinner theatre” is only partially accurate – tickets also are available to those who eschew the buffet), the entire experience is welcoming, warm and personal. Amenities aside, Newport Playhouse also ensures that no one has an excuse not to catch a performance, as their runs tend to span at least a month, with performances included at times when most theaters are still dark.

Self Help, which runs through October 8, is a collection of tropes, gags and dick jokes that manages to provide more unexpected laughs than it should, mostly due to the talents of the cast and some crisp direction by Michael Gregory, who knows how to allow his actors just enough rope before they choke. The premise is right out of a Fawlty Towers episode: Hal and Cindy Savage, frustrated with a life in small-time theater, decide to break into the self-help guru trade and find themselves a wild success. However, that fame spells doom for the marriage and, soon enough, Cindy (played with comedic precision by Marilyn Busch) finds herself wandering and, one dead gardener later, the Savages (and their agent) find themselves struggling to hide a body which, even in death, has managed to remain in flagrante delicto. And, yes, hilarity ensues.

What happens next, and how it all winds up (for the more pious among you, the ending may be a sticking point) is beside the point. This is farce and Self Help promises nothing more and nothing less. Joining Busch in gleefully chewing the nicely designed scenery is Lisa Reimer as the befuddled but assertive housemaid, Bernice. Bernice has the best character arc of the show, a collection of nervous tics which, true to the Fawlty Towers comparison, channels manservant Manuel to Hal Savage’s uptight Basil Fawlty. Reimer’s Bernice owns the best running gag of the show, a simple bit involving an intercom, that could fall flat in lesser hands. By show’s end, Bernice has shown the Savages a thing or two about self-acceptance as well as grace in the face of defeat (perhaps this script has a little more depth than it seems) and, of all the characters we run into, we want more of her. Due to a trick in scheduling, Reimer only portrays Bernice Friday – Sunday, and scenic designer Tonya Killavey covers these duties Monday – Thursday, so it would be interesting to see how Killavey handles the same task.

Also engaging is Newport Playhouse mainstay Sandra Nicastro, who nails the stereotype of the brassy agent, jumping in with both feet and a shovel as it is revealed to her that there is a body to conceal. She and Busch have the lion’s share of the sex jokes and it’s a guilty pleasure to watch them one-up each other as the gravity of the situation gives way to erotic shop talk. Along the way, we have the scheming investigative journalist and the not-quite Columbo detective (played by Director Michael Gregory with a restrained buffoonery that suits the part quite well). Do they uncover the deceit? Do we care?

The point of Self Help is inappropriate laughter and this production delivers. A few opening weekend cobwebs are sure to clear as the run moves on and performances tighten. One thought, not germane to this show, may be to have sound effects come from the stage, as opposed to the back of the house (something we noticed in other productions at Newport Playhouse). For instance, the Savages have chosen, amusingly, a cash register tone as their doorbell noise. Having that sound emerge from the back of the audience almost makes it appear as if a cue was misfired. Sound designer Jim Killavey may want to revisit this at some point. Otherwise, his choice of money-related tunes for preshow and scene changes is spot-on and works well.

Self Help is not life-changing theater, but it is certainly worth the price of admission, especially if you avail yourself of the full dinner-show-cabaret package. We have choice here in Rhode Island. Sometimes we want the weight of the world and inscrutable staging choices thrust upon us, and sometimes we just want some comfortable laughs (even if they’re inappropriately uncomfortable). Newport Playhouse’s Self Help offers the latter and, in these tumultuous times, that may be your preference.

Newport Playhouse & Cabaret Restaurant presents Norm Foster’s Self-Help, Sep 8 – Oct 8. 102 Connell Highway, Newport. For tickets and showtimes, call 401-848-PLAY (7529) or visit newportplayhouse.com/box-office.

 

 

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