Friday, August 31, 2012

The Americans Across the Street

The News Tribune, Aug. 31, 2012
reviewed by Alec Clayton
Tom Sanders, Rheanna Murray and Ann Flannigan in "The Americans Across the Street"

"The Americans Across the Street" by Carter W. Lewis, now playing at Harlequin Productions, is filled to overflowing with rage, sarcasm and bitter humor. Hilarity dominates most of this three-person show, but tenderness, sadness and love also take their bows on the dilapidated porch of Pulitzer Prize-winning author and world-class curmudgeon Derek Slaughterhouse (Tom Sanders).

Derek spends most of his days on the porch of his run-down suburban home in a gated community shouting insults at his across-the-street neighbors: a “bank monkey,” the privacy fence guy, and a 400-pound weight-loss guru. He hates them all. The only person he doesn’t hate is his mail carrier whom he calls a hermaphrodite because she is a mail man — a silly but effective play on words. She never appears on stage but he mentions her often. 

Alexa (Ann Flannigan), whom Derek hasn’t seen in 17 years, recently lost her husband, she is now destitute, and she and her 16-year-old daughter, Phoebe (Rheanna Murray) show up on Derek’s porch and radically change his life. Derek has apparently forgotten her and the fact that she is his little sister,
Harlequin’s opening night marked the first full performance of this play on any stage, and as with first performances of any play there are some rough spots. Most of the dialog is brilliant and at least two of the three characters are compelling, but their backstories and motivations are not as well developed as they should be. 

There were also a few inconsequential problems opening night, including a gunshot that was confusing — the audience could not tell who or what was shot by whom. There were also some dropped lines — forgivable because the cast moved past them quickly and well, and because there are extremely difficult monologues and they had only three weeks to memorize lines, plus there were some late script changes as revealed in a talk-back with cast, director and author after the performance.
These minor problems are dwarfed by the hilarity of the script and by the inspired acting of Sanders, Murray and Flannigan.

Among the laughing-to-tears scenes is one involving magic mushrooms and roasting marshmallows that is insanely funny and which anyone who lived through the ’60s and ’70s should be able to identify with and maybe for those who wish they had. What Alexa does after getting thoroughly stoned (I will not give it away) involves a marvelous bit of interpretive acting of an equally marvelous bit of writing.
"The Americans Across the Street" is a play with a small and intimate feel despite the fabulous elaborately constructed Slaughterhouse home designed by director Linda Whitney and built by Marko Bujeaud and crew. The production values are excellent, the lighting by Olivia Burlingame is magical, and the acting is outstanding.

There are clever one-liners, laugh-out-loud absurd situations, and sudden and dramatic changes in mood. The playwright sets you up for comic bits and suddenly yanks your heart out, and just as suddenly changes serious scenes into outlandish comedy. All of this works beautifully because of precise timing and excellent acting.

Flannigan makes the audience really believe she is a strong and loving woman trying her hardest to love a thoroughly unlovable brother. Murray is gawky, bright and funny as the teenager who melts Derek’s ice cold heart. I’ve seen Sanders in many roles, from “Animal Farm” to “Cannibal the Musical” to “Macbeth,” but I’ve never seen him portray such a range of extreme emotions so convincingly as he did in this play.

Although the reasons for Derek and Alexa’s 17-year estrangement and their neurotic co-dependence are neither clear nor believable, "The Americans Across the Street" is intelligent and funny and touching, and I enjoyed almost every moment of it.

WHEN: Thursdays through Saturdays, 8p.m., Sundays 2 p.m. through Sept. 15
WHERE: State Theater, 202 E. 4th Ave., Olympia
TICKETS: prices vary, call for details
INFORMATION: 360-786-0151;

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