Friday, February 22, 2013

WOBT: "Cookin' With Gus"

Award winning actor-playwright Jim Brochu's Cookin' With Gus opened its three weekend run at the Way Off Broadway Theatre in Prattville to a small but enthusiastic audience. The success of this formulaic comedy rests on the talents of its ensemble acting company, and WOBT has comedic talents in spades in its four member veteran actors.

Directed by Matthew Givens [who also plays a role] and Amanda E. Haldy [her first directing gig], the action moves briskly for the entire two hour running time.

Set in New York in the 1980s before cable television ushered in "The Food Channel" and assorted celebrity chef shows, Gussie [Dana Smith], a well known cookbook author and sometime newspaper columnist, is offered a chance at a contract for her own television program through the efforts of her eccentric agent Bernie [Zyna Captain]. Two things stand in the way: Gussie's "husband" Walter [Matthew Givens], an idealist and amateur hypnotist, would prefer a romantic married life with Gussie to the aspect of having to share her with the public and be placed on the sidelines of a seven year contract for the show; and, oh yes, Gussie has an abject fear of public speaking. Into this mix comes a predictably odd neighbor Carmen [Teri Sweeney], an "authentic" gypsy princess who is hardly ever sober.

Gussie really wants to do the show, but can't face the camera; so she asks Walter to hypnotize her to get over her fear, agreeing that if she doesn't get the job she will marry him. They've been together for eighteen years, and think all their friends believe they are married. -- And Walter provides...but with a difference that attempts to sabotage her audition demo-taping session by giving both her and guest-host Carmen "trigger words" that make them do outlandish things while on-camera.

Thanks to the script's sometimes surprising plot turns and witty dialogue, and the confidence of the ensemble, the predictable silliness of the central action -- the taping of the show and its I Love Lucy style slapstick food-fight -- comes off with hilarity not often seen on the WOBT or any other local stage. Individually and as an ensemble, the actors commit themselves to the demands of the script and are absolutely credible in depicting characters with all their foibles intact.

Ms. Captain is an archetypal "agent" -- all business, talking in shorthand, and pushy to the point of our wanting to strangle her; but she also demonstrates a good heart through all her befuddlement of the goings-on around her. And she has a comic ability to capitalize on using pauses to drive a point home.

As the gypsy Carmen, Ms. Sweeney takes command of every scene she is in; complete with outlandish costumes, a New York Jewish accent, and an uncanny ability to get the most out of the script, she is a model of professionalism on the WOBT stage.

Ms. Smith and Mr. Givens are so comfortable with each other that one could believe them as an actual couple; they feed off one another's every glance or shift of posture or vocal inflection, and do so with apparent ease; we want them to stay together, forgive one another for any misunderstanding, and applaud the romantic ending. And, Ms. Smith delivers one of the most hilarious drunk-scenes to grace the area's theatres.