Wednesday, October 17, 2018

102 (2018-2019): Review: POPCORN FALLS (seen October 16, 2018)

“More Butter, Please”

A lot of talent, effort, and energy has gone into James Hindman’s Off-Broadway confection, Popcorn Falls. What it needs, though, is more of the butter of unforced laughter. Originally produced last year, with positive reactions, at the Riverbank Theatre, Marine City, MI, Popcorn Falls is a play you visit more for the flavor of its gimmicky premise than the nutrition of its dramatic value.

Under the agile comic direction, however, of two-time Tony-winning Broadway star, Christian Borle (Something Rotten! and Peter and the Starcatcher), making his directing debut, it provides a digestible, if not always rib-tickling, theatrical snack. 
Adam Heller, Tom Souhrada. Photo: Monique Carboni.
The gimmick is to have two versatile actors, Adam Heller and Tom Souhrada, portray all 21 characters in the play’s comedically melodramatic plot. This concerns a bankrupt small town’s effort to avoid the fiscal necessity of  having their downtown area converted to a sewage plant. It’s a project sponsored by Mr. Doyle (Souhadra), the wicked head of the Cattaraugus County Budget Planning Committee. Doyle is foiled, though, by Mr. Trundle (Heller), the new mayor of Popcorn Falls, who, noting a loophole, decides to save the town by using local talent to start a theatre and put on a play (so much for original subject matter).
Tom Souhrada, Adam Heller. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Carefully written for its two-actor premise, the play introduces a panoply of exceedingly eccentric local yokels, male and female, young and old. Changing their voices, facial expressions, gestures, and postures, Heller and Souhadra deftly suggest who’s who by using only the most basic of props, like spectacles, hats, and the like. A shirt becomes an apron, a blanket a cat. By holding up a baseball cap at eye level, the person to whom one is talking is conjured out of thin air.

The actors transform from role to role with the speed of light either before our eyes or by exiting one of the doors at either side of the stage and entering almost immediately from the other. They often shape shift right before our eyes.

So many characters come and go, it’s necessary for Heller and Souhadra to exaggerate egregiously to avoid confusion. This, of course, only emphasizes the shallowness of the characters and makes us attend not to the obviously paper-thin narrative but to the constant stream of show biz shtick.
Adam Heller, Tom Souhadra. Photo: Monique Carboni.
After a while, watching Souhadra (who does more chameleon-like changes than Heller), dressed in a pale blue custodian’s shirt (labelled "Joe"), do his impressions loses its appeal. There’s Doyle, with his maniacal cackle; Austin, the doofus sheriff who can’t avoid poking folks with his stun gun; Mrs. Parker, the flamboyantly theatrical librarian; Floyd, the one-armed lumber yard dealer; Mrs. Stepp, the chain-smoking school teacher; Becky, the gentle bartender who keeps coyly sweeping back a strand of hair; and on and on.

Heller, who sometimes plays someone also portrayed by Souhadra, is better at straight acting than vaudeville caricatures, but he does nicely with a German called Hans, giving him the full faux-Nazi treatment, monocle and all. A few mildly off-color and scatological yocks don’t make up for a script so dependent on such broad stereotypes. I laughed more during ten minutes of The Play that Goes Wrong, another farce about putting on a play, than I did during all of Popcorn Falls.
Tom Souhadra, Adam Heller. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Borle’s lightning-fast, clever direction, which includes action in the small theatre’s aisle, does everything possible to wring laughs from the script, but it also allows for quieter moments to introduce touches of romantic sentiment. Costumes (by Joseph La Corte) and props may be minimal but Tim Mackabee has created a rather realistic set showing a wood-paneled meeting hall stage, with a curtained recess and solid, constantly used, doors. (Scenes in locales other than the hall simply ignore their surroundings.) Jeff Croiter’s volatile lighting and Jeffrey Lodin’s effective sound and music design give substance to the production but there’s not much they can do to make it funnier.
Adam Heller, Tom Souhadra, Photo: Monique Carboni.
Everyone involved has given Popcorn Falls their best effort but the show lacks enough comic butter to make it tasty enough. Orville Redenbacher, where are you?


The Davenport Theatre
354 W. 45th St., NYC
Through January 6