Imagine, if you will, living a most mundane life, just trying to make a piece of the pie only to discover that an ever bigger piece could be obtained through slinging baked goods yourself. This is exactly what Theatre 40 sets out to explore in its most recent production of Lisa Dillman’s American Wee-Pie.
Set in Gardensend, a small city in the Midwest in the present of planet Earth’s most recent late spring through early fall, our story opens on an innocent yet somewhat weathered-looking Zed, suitcase in hand, aimlessly waiting for what looks like a bus. Ethereal bells sound in the background as the lights come up only to reflect celestially off his shirt, nearly creating a halo effect around his entire body. Having returned from life in the big city at the loss of, and in preparation for, the funeral of his mother, it is evident that neither his mother’s passing or his current work-a-day life does anything to enhance his earthly sustenance. Enter Linz a lusciously earth motherly, but initially ordinary, former classmate the likes of which Zed has no memory.
“Everyone used to think you were retarded,” she will declare almost mockingly.
“I don’t think I remember that,” comes Zed’s cagey reply.
“I think I probably just told them you were stoned,” she will quip.
At first introduction, I am not prepared to like her. Moreover, one is not certain as to whether or not she will dish on old gossip, brag and/or compare notes like the most strident of ex-students, or act as catalyst in Zed’s life for further development.
The latter proves to be the case as she will declare, “I make cupcakes…cupcakes for adults… Me and my hubby run a cupcake emporium… Le Petit Gateau.” Having garnered a recent promotion as a repurposing editor after witnessing an elder employee, Phil, in all his ominous pallor, get canned and die of a heart attack, while looking back at Zed, just as he is about to step on the elevator, the notion of such a profession renders itself quite alien to our pasty protagonist.
Even more foreign, yet vibrant are the ingredients utilized in these colorful creations. As Linz warns both Zed and the audience, “If I told you what was in these recipes you’d be grossed right out!” For, rather than ribald renditions, risqué endeavors in culinary recipes will run the gamut from ingredients such as root vegetables, turnips, Daikon, and wasabi to Feta Pumpkin Praline flavor and Zed, at the invitation of Linz turns out to have a knack for determining any and all flavors with his eyes closed. Enter Linz’ pretentious yet comedically sound husband Pableu sporting an outrageous French accent! It is he who opts to take Zed under his wing as paid apprentice and fellow employee.
“Frosting is a verb,” he will say as opposed to the noun that encompasses the word “icing—the gentle dome not monolith” on top of each singular sugared sensation.
Zed is hesitant, but Linz will implore of him, “What’s your second act gonna be Zed? That’s what you’ve gotta think about. Your parents are gone…”
Weighing his options Zed most singularly muses to his skeptical sister Pam, “I sit in my cubicle all day and email coworkers who sit right next to me.” Pam who pushes practical telecommunications bundles could not be less moved until she meets Pete who makes quite a killing (pun intended) of selling cemetery plots.
Malcolm, Zed and Pam’s mother’s friendly neighborhood postman will serve as somewhat of an advisor in life and death as he reminisces the character of the sibling’s mother. Malcolm will also disclose that he is the first person who suspected their mother might have passed due to the stacked mail upon their porch.
Phil, Zed’s deceased elder coworker will appear to Zed in dreams making circuitous bicycle tracks around the symbolically subordinate Zed telling the self same bawdy jokes to which Zed was accustomed when Phil was alive. It is Phil who keeps Zed grounded in the dream stated reality of his former self until he keels off the bike just exactly as he had pitched over and into the elevator in his former life. The dreams then stop such that Zed’s waking dreams can possibly commence.
The performance itself is solid from the sympathetic and sincere portrayal of Zed by an equally apt Caleb Slavens, a most even keel Malcolm performed by Frederick Dawson in most comforting fashion, Linz played by a warm and earnest Deirdra Edwards, Pableu performed by a fiery and mellow dramatic Christopher Franciosa, Pam portrayed by a warmly terse Elizabeth Lande, to Pete played by a glib and appropriately unctuous Steve Keys, to Phil performed by an amusingly antagonistic James Schendel, the ensemble is cohesive and plays well off each other.
One can no doubt credit the above to the direction of Stewart J. Zully. Sets by Jeff G. Rack are appropriately colored, proportioned and delicious–The Le Petit Gateau bakery in particular! Sound effects by Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski are beautifully organic. Never once have I stumbled upon bird and insect noises that so aptly emulated the sounds emanating from my parent’s backyard in Massachusetts. The bird calls alone are certainly NOT for the birds! And costume design by Michele Young is everything from functional, to fun, to festive!
The play as written, is a nice, entertaining light comedic romp. All the same, I would have liked to have seen more texture and levels. The character of Malcolm in particular I found to be most lacking in potential. He is present as something of a symbolic life coach or possibly even surrogate parent but I kept waiting for some sort of big reveal or something more philosophical to be imparted to the siblings about either their mother’s death, life, or what he might be to them other than what he was. The character of Phil could have been a little more prophetic and/or profound as well and a part of me was not even sure why he was in the script. Moreover, there was a bit of a lack of cohesion and economy in writing at certain points as there were too many discussions and incidents which did not seem to move the plot. At a certain point it is addressed that Zed’s name is also Tim. There is a back and forth discussion between Zed and Pam regarding this but I don’t remember coming away with anything major in the way of amusement and/or “aha moments” from this little bit of superfluous dialogue. Their TV remote also continually seems to have a mind of its own. Our first inkling is to assume that there is some sort of poltergeist afoot but nothing really much comes of that either, at least not in a way that was in any way poignant, singularly humorous, or exciting to this reviewer; all in all and in short, much too much minutia in the writing and not enough dramatic shape or arc. The writing itself is nice, of course but nothing to write home about.
American Wee-Pie runs at Theatre 40 through April 13th.
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