When Jeff Daniels founded the Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea, he was often quoted about his desire “to build an audience for live theater” where one had not existed previously and where some thought such an audience might never exist. As I looked around during the quick and polished mini-plays that are part of the Spring Comedy Festival–this year entitled Lovers, Liars, and Lunatics, a title broad enough to encompass anything the six playwrights might care to write about–it is very clear that Daniels has succeeded. The audience is excited and engaged. People laugh easily and are ready to cry when the appropriate heartstrings are plucked. They forgive moments that are less engaging or barely funny because they know that their patience will be rewarded. Daniels’ The Anatomy of an Argument, for instance, seems formulaic and perhaps just a bit too easy, but this audience has good reason to run with Daniels, and director Guy Sanville has an impeccable sense of timing that can rescue any comedy.
Most of the comedies in this year’s group feature the quick wordplay and the sentimental turns that have shaped short plays in regional theater for a couple hundred years. They range from the broad sexual comedy of Kirsten Knisley’s The Arrangement, where a young couple’s hookup is challenged by the onset of genuine emotion, to the physical slapstick of Daniels’ other contribution, The Guitar Lesson. Yes, indeed, it turns on the horrors parents can inflict on themselves and their children when they begin the process of learning music.
Perhaps my favorite play of the evening was David MacGregor’s absurdist black comedy, Just Desserts. In this play, an office nonentity, played brilliantly by Michelle Mountain, decides to discover who is stealing food from the company refrigerator, and to exact her revenge. It is a situation most of us can recognize, but here things go to an extreme conclusion. Mountain does a lovely job turning her mousy nobody into a loveable monster.
Mountain also has a later turn that I think is worth the price of admission. In the second half of the evening, the audience discovers that the three playlets by Carey Crim, none of them longer than ten minutes, are linked, even though in performance they’re separated by other work. In the second of these, a widower played by regional stalwart Tom Whalen interviews potential dates at a cafe. Mountain plays all of the dates, changing character in a quick second by tossing her hair and rapidly altering her voice or actions. Her performance in that one short scene is a tour de force, and her audience clearly appreciated the accomplishment.
The Spring Comedy Festival at the Purple Rose Theatre runs through May 24.