Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Lucky Spot, Ensemble Theatre

(Peter Ferry as Reed Hooker and Valerie Young as Sue Jack)

It would seem to be fortuitous timing to stage a play about people struggling through the early 1930’s Depression during this, our brand spanking new Recession/Deflation/Depression for the 21st Century. But Beth Henley’s play The Lucky Spot, now at the Ensemble Theatre, is so larded with determinedly quirky folks and, at the end, so much forced joviality and redemption that it might better be titled The Wet Spot (as in something you contort yourself to avoid).

We find ourselves in a southern dance hall on Christmas Eve in 1934, a place run by Reed Hooker since he won it and a 15-year-old prostitute named Cassidy in a poker game. He’s out to turn the joint into a taxi dance hall for the rural yokels in the area, with the assistance of his flunky, handyman and pseudo philosopher Turnip.

But there trouble a-brewin’, since Reed’s old lady is about to be let loose from prison for the holidays. Sue Jack is apparently a terror, a gal known far and wide for a temper so explosive, all the dance hall girls have booked out of town for fear of running into her. And Reed has another big problem, since a guy named Whitt has shown up and wants to seize the property for unpaid debts.

Reed thinks he can make a ton of money with The Lucky Spot hall, not only from selling the dance tickets but also from pushing drinks and renting neckties to the rubes who come in one cravat short of the dress code. But he has to deal with Cassidy, a girl who now is pregnant with his child, who has six toes (why? well, why not?) and who thinks she is destined to be the next Mrs. Hooker once Sue Jack is shooed away.

Playwright Henley wants to show us how those dreams come apart, lay in tatters, and then are magically reasembled in a second-act Christmas Day denouement that will have everyone singing carols on the way out. Trouble is, few of the characters stay true to themselves, making their changes of heart feel cheap and unearned.

All that said, director Licia Colombi and her cast do manage to find some gold specs in this avalanche of emotional silt. As Reed, Peter Ferry casts a strong presence on stage and seems believable as a shallow rumrunner and gambler. And Valerie Young has a nice edge as Sue Jack, although the scene where she shoots up the dance hall is too pathetic for words (muffled, pre-recorded rifle shots and no damage to the environs save for a decorative tree branch that gets knocked ten degrees off center and a picture frame on the wall that goes askew).

As Cassidy and Turnip, Aly Geisler and Ryan Shrewsbury have sweetness at their core, but they never feel completely in the moment while tending to overdo their reactions when others are speaking. Greg Del Torto fares better as nasty Whitt, tossing off many of his lines with a smirk and a smile instead of a snarl.

But the most engaging performance is turned in by Mary Jane Nottage as washed up dance hall girl Lacy Rollins. Beset by co-workers who don’t like her (they didn’t mention they were leaving town), a fiancĂ© who left her at the altar and a predilection for falling down (thin ankle bones), Lacy is a train wreck. But from her first entrance to her final twirl, Nottage brings out the tender desperation of this woman who thrills when a man actually talks to her “in real conversation.”

Sad to say, these performances are all in service of a script that doesn’t believe in the characters it has created. One example: Sue Jack shows up, swilling rotgut and pining after Reed. But the next day she’s on the wagon and doesn’t want Reed anymore—until she does again. And none of these psychic pirouettes are justifiably explained.

It would all be better if the play concluded at the end of the penultimate scene, with a reflective moment that actually works. But the final stanza is a hot mess—featuring Christmas miracles and reversals of character that no director or company of actors should be called upon to rescue.

The Lucky Spot
Through December 7, produced by the
Ensemble Theatre at the Cleveland
Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue,

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