BWW Reviews: Hole in the Wall's WHISKEY TANGO Explores the Sordid Lives of New Britain Trailer Park Denizens
Theatre: Hole in the Wall Theater
Location: 116 Main Street, New Britain
Production: Book, Music, Lyrics, Direction and Sound Design by Johnny Peifer; Set Design by Bill Arnold; Lighting Design by Dawn Alguard; Costume Design by Stephanie Layne. Through September 28; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Sunday, Matinee on Sept. 22 at 2 p.m. Tickets $15-$20; Pay What You Can Performance on Thursday, September 19, visit www.hitw.org.
New Britain's Hole in the Wall Theater has done something daring with the selection of its 2013-2014 season. Not only has HITW made room in its lineup for an almost-unheard-of (in these parts, anyway) four new plays, this daring community theatre group has selected four "CT Grown" works by area playwrights to premiere. This is commendable as very few professional or community theaters in Connecticut make room for home-grown talent. And, yes, I selfishly applaud this as a local playwright whose work has been premiered on Hole in the Wall's edgy stage.
Whiskey Tango by New Britain's own Johnny Peifer is the first new work out of the gate. The play almost serves as a cautionary for the three remaining premieres on the HITW slate. Clearly a labor of love by the multi-talented Peifer, Whiskey Tango has a lot on its mind - religion, American retail culture, chemical foods, alcoholism, legalization of pot, baseball, and copious references to local institutions. In many ways, it is very much akin to the similarly schizophrenic trailer park-set film and TV series Sordid Lives.
The central problem with the piece is that it fails to compellingly establish the central issue of the piece. Ostensibly, the primary action surrounds the second coming of Jesus (played by Tony Palmieri) who has come to clear his name after two millennia of abuse and misinterpretation at the hands of Christians. Why does Jesus choose a trailer park in New Britain for his return? That's not really clear. Perhaps it is because Jesus (don't call him Christ or he'll get his knickers in a knot) always felt at home among the downtrodden. Are the residents shocked that Jesus has returned to their midst? In a word, no. Do Jesus' rantings lead to any momentous change among the trailer residents? Not really as they all pretty much agree with him - even the dude who watches FOX News. They don't even seem particularly religious. The omnipresent marijuana, grown by Smith (a solid Susan Smith Thom), seems to be a bigger game-changer to this group than a reluctant Messiah plopping in the middle of their mobile homes.
Of paramount concern is the wavering tone of the piece. At times, it wants to be an over-the-top comic statement with Jesus appearing as a pot-smoking, barefoot libertine in a Buddha t-shirt, making out with the local Walmartian trailer tart behind the trash cans. Christian audiences, I imagine, would find it incredibly outrageous, but due to the subdued presentation it doesn't land that way. One can sense that Peifer is conflicted as to whether or not to mine the outsized stereotypes of "trailer trash" with pink flamingos, discarded beer bottles and Elvis busts on view. He doesn't go all the way there, possibly out of respect for real mobile home residents. This is a good and a bad thing as he avoids the easy laughs, but then fails to get as many laughs as the concept promises.
At times, Whiskey Tango feels like an afterschool special. Motherless, forlorn Ally (Gabbie Hasson) hides from her alcoholic father in a tree fort with her bland imaginary friend (Jill Podgwaite). Bonnie (the charming Kathleen-Marie Robin Clark) is uninsured and may have cancer. Snap (a focus-stealing Steve Sabol) wrestles with post-drinking-binge-morning-after regret (for approximately two minutes). Father Byrne (the stalwart Mark Englehart) has his faith upbraided by Jesus. Will Knight's Jones, the trailer park's resident philosopher and Latin scholar (doesn't every trailer park have one?), ponders the complications and implications of baseball to no fulfilling end.
Finally, Whiskey Tango is a musical that is fairly stingy with its music. Long stretches go by with no songs. Opportunities for songs arise with none forthcoming. Jesus jumps on the picnic table mid-rant and you know he just wants to SING! Nope. He is told to get off the picnic table. Smith, the trailer park's resident pharmacologist, develops the ultimate strain of marijuana. When druggy nirvana is attained, the cast sits around blissed out while the action is screaming for a song.
Certain melodies land, particularly a duet between Sabol's Snap and his wife Dot (played by Heidi Michaud delivering the finest performance in the piece) and the Act 2 opener "My Ten-Dollar Walmart Hat" (despite featuring a slightly "lacist" depiction of an Asian). The disastrous Act 1 jailhouse number for Jesus left me wishing that some Romans would swoop in with a cross and nails and put the song out of its misery.
The long and the short of it is that with book, music, lyrics, direction, music direction, sound design AND pit orchestra all on Johnny Peifer's to-do list, Whiskey Tango's premiere seems pre-ordained to be messy. Despite a strong production, with a fantastic set by Bill Arnold, Stephanie Layne and Tony Palmieri, the show feels like a play in need of a workshop. With a strong directorial or dramaturgical hand, Peifer would find where to tighten, where to jettison and where to augment. Hopefully the three remaining premieres on HITW's season will divide writing and directing responsibilities to provide a more satisfying theatre experience.
Cast photo by Mark Englehart.