Getting There From Here: Sunset Playhouse on a Preview Night
Jokes and sentiments looking for their proper places in casual sitcom energy.
The 1993 Pat Cook comedy is written very much like a vintage mid-20th century TV sitcom . . . a fact which is not lost at all on the production. There’s a different sitcom theme song between each scene. The solid construction of another Michael Desper set firmly establishes a bed and breakfast somewhere in the middle of nowhere.
Gladys Chmiel plays Liz—the woman who runs the bed and breakfast in Shadow Falls—a tiny, little town with little more than a road, a pothole and a ,“Dairy Princess” ice cream shop. This is quaint, small town humor drawn from the Mayberry—Andy Griffith cloth. There are sharp bits of wit peeking out from familiar, old comfort comedy for baby boomers and their parents.
With the style of humor being as familiar as it is, the preview night ended up being a great deal of fun to watch. Instinctively, everyone knows the feel that the playwright was going for . . . it’s a very familiar style of comedy. And though the jokes know where they’re supposed to be and the actors know how they’re supposed to be delivered and the overall rhythm of the show is very intrinsic to the script, preview night is a bit scattered as preview nights tend to be. A few punch lines seem a bit our of synch with each other. A few bits of physical comedy are slightly out of touch with the actors . . . it’s like watching anold episode of some forgotten sitcom that seems to be having a bit of difficulty remembering itself. It’s a pleasantly disorienting novelty.
Even once all of the play’s humor figures out exactly where it needs to be, there’s still likely to be at least some of this pleasantly disorienting novelty. The script is reaching for old comedic conventions that take a lot longer to develop than the playwright is giving them time for. Even a perfectly polished cast would end-up missing some of the character development, because the playwright never gives it time to actually appear.
A journalist from out-of-town (affably played by Tom Van Gilder) finds himself stuck, as his car has broken down. He stays in the only bed and breakfast in the place, run by a folksy woman with plenty of charm. (In the single best performance of the preview, Gladys Chmiel delivered all the right charisma in the role. Bearing something of a matronly look about her, Chmiel is the type of actress who would often get placed around the edges of a traditional comedy script. It’s refreshing to see her in a more central role here.)
The journalist is expected to fall in love with the small town’s charm in very short order, allowing for other stresses in the plot to develop, but there simply isn’t enough time to make it work. The rush of the love story between the journalist, Shadow Falls and a young woman who lives there ends-up being kind of comical in and of itself, which doesn’t seem all that intended by the script, but even the most polished production wouldn’t be able to get around that. The forced nature of the pacing, which features colorful, vaguely familiar characters, ends up being a pleasant novelty that makes Sunset’s latest a fun trip to Elm Grove.