- Greggory Moore
As is tradition, the Little Fish Theatre opened its 14th season with “Pick of the Vine,” an hors d’oeuvres platter of very short plays before the coming 10-course meal of full-lengths they will stage in 2016. They say it may be their regular patrons’ favorite show. Judging by audience reaction in the sold-out theatre on opening night, it seems Little Fish know their core demographic.
It’s probably no coincidence that most every example of short theatrical performances you can think of—Vaudeville, Saturday Night Live, etc.—are comedic rather than dramatic. Perhaps numerous separate bits of drama would be too heavy to ingest in one sitting, while a sketch can be swallowed without making you too full to consume more. Whatever the rationale, this is the ethos that dominates “Pick of the Vine.” Of the 10 shorts on the menu, only two-and-a-half are not over-the-top comedies. If you like your funny subtle, “Pick of the Vine” is not the show for you. That’s just not what they’re going for.
In fact, there’s such a consistency of tone that you would think a single author wrote at least half of these plays, if you didn’t know from the program that each is by a different author. For example, in How Nice of You to Ask (a college research assistant conducting a sex survey has the tables turned on him by his septuagenarian interview subject), The Temp (an office staff is a little too unfazed by the death of a temp recently in their midst), What You Don’t Know (two Caltrans-type workers decide how best to deal with a bit of roadkill with an identification tag), and Reston (a pair Ivy League alums are bound and determined that their progeny get in a preschool so selective that there are DNA requirements), just about every single joke is written and delivered with everything but a neon sign that says “LAUGH HERE.” That is a particular style of comedy, and—like all styles of comedy—whether it’s funny is a matter of taste. Considering that the audience laughed perhaps literally every time laughs were solicited, as mentioned above, Little Fish knows its patrons’ taste.
For this reviewer, the most interesting pieces were the ones meant for a different part of the palate. Ten Picnics, a survey of the first four decades or so in the life of Frank as he revisits the same picnic spot with a series of women (first his mothers, then various dates, and eventually his wife and their own child), is a compelling idea, although ultimately it’s too ambitious for the brevity of each vignette, which makes the whole piece come off as too slight. Develop this one into a full-length play, and playwright Mark Harvey Levine may really have something.
George D. Morgan’s The Wiggle Room seems both more successful and more of a missed opportunity. Morgan’s play is a fictionalized version of a real-life conference call that took place on the eve of the doomed 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger mission between NASA employees and managers at aerospace and manufacturing corporation Morton Thiokol. Perhaps being a fly on the wall for the call, in which NASA successfully inveigles Morton Thiokol to sign off on the pending launch even though they know that the temperature is such that O-rings are projected to fail (which they did, causing the in-flight explosion), is interesting enough, but what makes The Wiggle Room particularly compelling as a piece of theatre is that monomaniacal bureaucracy that is the lifeblood of Morgan’s NASA company men is funny. Ultimately, The Wiggle Room turns predictably somber, which almost comes off as a failure of nerve on Morgan’s part (although no doubt it would be a neat trick to make a play about a real-life corporate failure that cost seven people their lives funny from start to tragic finish).
The best of the non-comedic works is M. Rowan Meyer’s Cancelled, which concerns a couple’s coping with the death of their would-be adopted son just days before they were to travel to Nigeria to bring him home. Director Branda Lock manages to keep the proceedings from running off the rails into melodrama, as well as orchestrating the night’s most effective blocking.
The best of the comedies is David MacGregor’s Small Talk. On paper this tale of a young lawyer (Patrick Rafferty) dragging his girlfriend (Kathryn Farren) to pre-marriage counseling because she is incapable of making small talk—essential to the development of his future career—shouldn’t be as funny as it is, but the four-person cast’s various attempts (both real and role-playing) at conversation, more than a little of it centering on cheese, are golden. Rhythm is everything in Small Talk, and director Branda Lock once again does excellent work with her cast.
The many, many roles in “Pick of the Vine” are handled by just nine actors, often called upon to play totally disparate roles in back-to-back scenes, and on occasion even to portray more than one character within a single piece. It’s quite an acting exercise, and without fail all of the cast members show themselves to be in good shape.
It would be too much to say that “Pick of the Vine” has something for everybody, or even that it’s a repast with much of a varied menu. But for most people there’s not much here that will get stuck in your craw, and if you’re in the mood for some lite snacks with a few meatier morsels thrown in for good measure, “Pick of the Vine” is likely to hit the spot.
PICK OF THE VINE LITTLE FISH THEATRE • 777 CENTRE ST • SAN PEDRO 90731 • 310.512.6030 • LITTLEFISHTHEATRE.ORG • THURS-SAT 8PM (EXCEPT NO SHOWS JAN 14 & FEB 11) + SUN 2PM ON JAN 17 & 24, • $25-27; WITH DINNER $38-48 • THROUGH FEB 13
Photo credit: Mickey Elliott