Though he’s a lawyer by day, by night Robert A. O’Connell is a driving force in Nashville theater. For years he worked frequently with ACT I as both an actor and director. More recently he founded his own company, GroundWorks Theatre, which has provided him the opportunity to present new and different plays that reflect his fondness for contrasting styles, from the sentimental (Craig Wright’s The Pavilion) to the extremely dark (Adam Rapp’s Blackbird).
Now O’Connell weighs in as a writer himself, offering up a two-act revue comprising 24 short scenes that exploit playful, fantastical, bawdy, warm and ultra-serious scenarios that zip the viewer in and out of disparate settings such as a funeral home, a Greyhound bus, the confessional box and a ski lift, to name a few.
O’Connell is a devotee of the comic absurdity of Christopher Durang and the quick-witted sketch work of David Ives, and in some way these affinities are reflected in his approach to humor. But the strongest unifying force here is the brevity of the scenes, which lends his show the feel of an improv revue, with actors coming and going with regularity and the lights going up and down with toggle-switch speed. This pretty much guarantees that the audience won’t ever be bored, an admirable intention that is fulfilled.
Early on, we receive a heavy dose of recurring scenes involving Charlie and Sue Ellen, whom we see first in childhood, their affection unwavering through various trips to the principal’s office, parenthood and on into old age. This lighthearted routine gets a tad predictable, but Charles Howard and Melissa Landry commit to it fully and make it work.
Things turn violent in “Down Under,” a longer scene set in a New York subway car that recalls the trauma of 9/11 and the danger of big-city life. “If Only” is the concluding major Act 1 scene, and it’s a worthy rumination on life’s romantic what-ifs, played with proper understatement by Pat Reilly and Cynthia Correro.
Act 2 is more of the same, with O’Connell ratcheting up the outrageous and grappling with other sobering topics. The recurring-scene formula is used again, only this time we get personified dogs and cats, which amounts to cutesy diversion. “The Witnesses,” featuring Howard and Cinda McCain, gives us an improbable setup revolving around the issue of capital punishment. It doesn’t completely make its point, but the dialogue is interesting for a while. “Fundamental Differences” depicts a right-winger (Reilly) and a Muslim (Obadiah Ewing-Roush) both talking aloud while hacking away on their laptops, their screed-like credos sounding a lot closer in spirit than anyone might previously have imagined. Again, this is an interesting ironic idea, which the actors play well, though it presumably, and without subtlety, reveals the writer’s left-leaning intentions.
Other notable scenes have intriguing ideas but are stillborn, such as “Boys in Blue,” featuring a photo op with two young Union soldiers circa 1861. (Note to the playwright: the word “poontang” wouldn’t have been heard out of the mouth of a Civil War soldier. Its usage in English only traces back to the 1920s.) “Van Gogh at the Wheel” has the master painter taking his driving test, with the farfetchedness trumping the potential for laughs.
The comic apex of Act 2 is “Deadwood PTA,” which spoofs the expletive-laced style of HBO’s Wild West series Deadwood. Even if you don’t know the TV show, O’Connell gets some decent mileage out of the “F” word, with McCain and Jack E. Chambers playing things with droll effectiveness.
Book-ending each act are scenes featuring a gay couple, Bruce (Johnny Harrison) and Mickey (Steve Davidson), who are supposedly audience members watching (what else?) Why the Sea Is Boiling Hot. These scenes function as the obvious “in” joke on the audience, and they’re a little too precious, but the actors pull them off unself-consciously.
Two performers, J.R. Robles and Lily Palmer, each appear in only one scene, but they make the most of their moments. Robles is the menacing thug in “Down Under,” and Palmer is a delightfully animated young kitty in “Buster and Cleo.” Stephanie Vickers rounds out the cast in a variety of roles.
O’Connell directs his own script, a task that, by and large, consists of letting his players take center stage and have at his words. The pacing is alert, however. And even when the lesser scenes falter—because we can’t suspend our disbelief any further, or their reliance on coincidence strains credibility, or their payoffs are too obvious—the actors stay in the pocket and maximize what’s good about the writing.