It’s the 35th year of continuous operation for the Newport Playhouse and Cabaret Restaurant and while most theaters would be celebrating such a milestone with special performances or nostalgic retrospectives, owner Jonathan Perry is basking in the glow of simply being open at all. On January 7, a pipe burst due to the frigid conditions Rhode Island experienced at that time, resulting in the flooding of the downstairs cabaret stage and restaurant area. And, while the scheduling took a bit of a hit as a result (their production of Sam Bobrick’s Remember Me was moved to May), Perry and crew have managed to complete the herculean task of renovation and reopen to the public in time for their current offering, Exit Laughing, directed by W. Richard Johnson.
The theater itself remains familiar, but it’s the downstairs bar and cabaret stage that show the results of the hard work by both professional and volunteer labor. While the antediluvian look of the space was comfortable and cozy in a mid-20th century way, the new look is open and less obstructed. Perry is quick to point out that all the old Playbills and pictures are still missing from the walls, but that fact does not detract from the work put in to create an appealing atmosphere for the pre- and post-show cocktails and buffet. In fact, the flood may have been a mixed blessing for Perry as “We’ve had the chance to upgrade the sound system and we’re working to make it the best we possibly can for this room.” The bar area is now wide open as opposed to being tucked away in the corner, and there are fewer sightline obstructions for the cabaret performances. It’s a small triumph of the will for Perry and his crew of performers/staff who all bucked the pessimistic estimates by contractors and completed the needed work long before anyone expected.
As for the current production upstairs, Exit Laughing is a continuation of the Newport Playhouse style, regardless of what happens downstairs. The play is not groundbreaking (a bit like “Steel Magnolias” meets “Golden Girls”), but the performances are crisp, energetic and often very funny, elevating the material to something more than what’s on the page. Playwright Paul Elliott’s script can best be described as “sweet” without offering any new insights on carpe diem. Connie, Leona and Millie — best friends and bridge partners for decades — are left to deal with the passing of their friend (and fourth player), Mary. As they gather to have one more game in Mary’s honor, Connie (played with a heartwarming earnestness by Patty Mott) deals with her high-strung daughter, Rachel (a beautifully high-strung Katrina Rossi, who wrings a fine performance out of a part that could have simply been a histrionic mess). Rachel is a college student, living at home (theater major, pysch minor – a recipe for drama if ever there was one), virginity still in question and railing over being stood up for a date. Connie does what she can to placate Rachel, but the arrival of Leona and Millie for the game brings about a new urgency – Millie (played with a wonderfully sweet, casual idiocy by Shaelyn Conlin-Grey) has managed to “liberate” Mary’s ashes from the funeral home in order to have her join them once more as their “fourth.” Leona (delivered with with a sassy, sexy gravitas by Pamela Gill) vacillates between righteous attitude and detached alcoholism as the trio tries to come to terms with Mary’s death and the very real problem of what to do with the admittedly “ugly” urn that they all agree does not do justice to her memory.
What follows is a taut set of well-rehearsed performances by a refreshing ensemble of (slightly) older women, which was something we didn’t think we needed to see until it was upon us. As stated above, Exit Laughing, as a play, is no revelation, but is certainly a fine vehicle for the right three women. Rossi’s Rachel, however, is not the only 20-something on the stage, as her cancelled date, Bobby (Mike Tiberio), makes a surprise appearance at the house, fulfilling some wishes from beyond the grave (cue Velcro and mirrorball). Mary’s presence is everywhere, it seems, and the messages about living life to the fullest and breaking out of our ruts ring true, if not trite. It’s a feelgood show, full of laughter and staged with skill by director Johnson, who allows his actors enough room to chew a little scenery without veering into farce. Tonya Killavey’s scenic design incorporates the usual Newport Playhouse series of walls and doors, but actually manages to achieve a very lived-in, homey feel, with excellent set dressing and a staircase to upstairs that actually feels as if it might really go somewhere.
So, all of this is to say that Newport Playhouse isn’t going anywhere, despite some adversity, and is actually better off for the slight setback. Perry’s new venture, Newport to Nashville, a musical exchange of performers between the two cities, is thriving and the upstairs schedule is packed for the foreseeable future. Dinner theater may get a bad rap, but that does not necessarily mean that plays such as Exit Laughing are disposable fare. An evening (or afternoon) at Newport Playhouse is quite a value for the price of admission and shows such as this one stand up to a lot of what’s going on in RI Theater at the moment. Head over the bridges and plan a date. Jonathan Perry and crew will be waiting with a smile.
The Newport Playhouse and Cabaret Restaurant presents Paul Elliott’s Exit Laughing through Saturday, May 12 (extended through May 26). Directed by W. Richard Johnson. 102 Connell Highway, Newport. For tickets and more information, call 401-848-PLAY (7529) or visit web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/34452. Showtimes vary, so choose accordingly.