The Gingerbread Lady
With its inaugural production, The Gingerbread Lady, the new Happy Medium Theatre Company tackles an ambitious Neil Simon play in an entertaining way.
Director Mikey DiLoreto keeps the play's action lively; his staging makes maximal use of the performance space and gives the material a contemporary feel, though DiLoreto stays true to the era in which the play is set, with an old LP-playing stereo in one corner and dialogue that cites Merv Griffin and Ed Sullivan (in case you're under 35 or so, they were a talk show host and a variety show host, respectively).
As DiLoreto observes in the program notes, Simon's play transcends its period references, grappling with eternal themes of loneliness, rejection, ambition, and the most reliable of human emotions, plain, raw-edged fear.
The play centers on Evy (Crystal Lisbon), a singer by trade who hasn't had much work lately, but who has decided to turn over a fresh leaf by going into a detox program. When Evy appears, she's shed 40 pounds and dried out; her best friends Jimmy (Victor Shopov) and Toby (Audrey Lynn Sylvia) are delighted with her progress, but they aren't available to shore her up.
That task falls to Evy's 17-year-old daughter Polly (Lesley Anne Moreau), who is determined to move in and help her mother get her life back on track. It's a hard act to pull off: Evy isn't the only one who is on the edge of disintegrating. Jimmy is an actor on the verge of terminal career meltdown, while Toby, aging and vain, is embroiled in a collapse of her own: her husband is about to leave her.
Simon's play is packed with wit and ripping one-liners, but many of the play's spiky gems seem muffled in this production. All of the actors rise to the material when emotions run high, especially in Act 2's powerhouse roundelay of panic and drunken aggression, when everyone hits the wall of their personal crisis during a birthday party for Toby.
It's the subtler moments that prove tough for DiLoreto and his cast. Big soaring moments are brought to life here, but the deeper undercurrents feel underserved, in part because while there's a well-developed sense of who each character is on his or her own, the cast doesn't quite gel into the sort of ensemble that easily communicates a long history of complex emotional attachments. We get a sense of their long association from the dialogue more than from their communal stage presence.
But the material is so strong and the performances so energetic that the play's charm and wit still come through. Victor Shopov plays the gay Jimmy with a fine balance of actorly self-involvement and self-possession: when Jimmy's raving about his gifts as a stage actor, the moment is just self-referential enough to give the house a good laugh. Better is DiLoreto and Shopov's choices in allowing the character to be a human being rather than a caricature: no lisping or mincing here, just a boiling mix of ambition and lonliness.
Audrey Lynn Sylvia proves a powerhouse when her character, Toby, is called on to deliver what is essentially a monologue in which Toby goes through an exhaustive checklist of her sexual conquests and fabulous high points as the consort of powerful men. Her cataloging of her own beauty is a monumental and uproarious ode to vanity; for the alcoholic Evy, already slipping off the wagon, it's enough to drive her to drink (more). In that one scene, Sylvia captures Toby's terror of aging, making her pitiable even while presenting her as a woman of sensuality and style.
But it's Lisbon and Moreau and their mother-daughter dynamic that serves as the play's crux. In a classic reversal, the overwhelmed Evy cedes her parental authority to Polly, who worries herself sick over her mother's erratic conduct and frequent lapses. (Jimmy calls Evy a "drunken nymphomaniac" at one point, and he's not kidding: Evy yearns for a stiff man perhaps even more intensely and more frequently than she needs a stiff drink.)
Lisbon's portrait of a woman in need of acclaim and attention is sometimes scary, especially in its brazen, self-destructive streak: when Evy seeks out a former boyfriend (Michael Fisher) and provokes him to physical abuse, she's both battered and triumphant, a frightening mix of victim and self-victimizer.
DiLoreto serves as set designer and costumer as well as director, which allows him to put the production together with a consistent visual flair. For such a small space, The Factory Theatre has mounted some commanding productions over its last few seasons; "The Gingerbread Lady" is a standout to add to that list.
"The Gingerbread Lady" plays at The Factory Theatre, located at 791 Tremont Street in Boston, through Sept. 20. Performance schedule: Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 p.m.; Sundays at 3:00 p.m.
Tickets cost $15 for adults, $12 for seniors/students in advance; $18 for adults, $15 for seniors/students at the door.
More information available at www.happymediumtheatre.com