Balancing subjects on opposite ends of the comedy-drama spectrum is always tricky, especially if the goal is not to write a dark comedy. It’s a conundrum that hasn’t been solved by Richard J. Allen or Stage West, where his Starbright & Vine is having its world premiere.
Allen is an Emmy-winning screenwriter ( As the World Turns) and a faculty member of Texas Christian University’s film, television and digital media department.
This premiere continues an exciting trend for Stage West in not only hosting a playwriting contest with readings of new plays by local and regional writers, but of sometimes producing them; although this work didn’t come from the contest, it still fits the mold.
That’s to be commended, but this work suffers from the distinctive problem of being a play about a famous comedian — not to mention the art of comedy writing — that is not very funny. Especially not in the first act, which feels even longer than it is precisely because of the lack of chuckles.
The “Vine” of the title refers to Marty Vine (Cliff Stephens), an aging comedian once considered to be one of this country’s greatest, now content to rehash outdated jokes in Atlantic City.
His estranged son Blake (Randy Pearlman) delivers the message that Marty has been given the award of “Best TV Comic of the 20th Century,” obviously only given to comedy legends who are still alive, and he’ll be feted at the Kennedy Center. For this, he’ll need to write some new material.
But Marty doesn’t want to do that, so Blake enlists the help of a up-and-coming writer, Jackie (Lee Jamison), who was best known as the star of a young adult sci-fi movie franchise, playing Captain Mandy Starbright.
Having the young, attractive Jackie around doesn’t set well with Donna (Audrey Ahern), the much younger live-in girlfriend of Marty, a lifetime womanizer whose biography would be as interesting for the women he had bedded (including Jackie’s mother) as it would for his comedy career.
The aforementioned darker side to this story is that Marty is in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s, sometimes forgetting what just happened and where he is.
Directed by Jim Covault on his own set design, the stage is dominated on either side by shelves filled with lamps that illuminate randomly (lighting by Michael O’Brien) — there’s got to be a deeper meaning there, though, like maybe a metaphor for Marty’s lights being on even when nobody’s home.
The first solution to help with pacing in the first act would be streamlining (or eliminating) the furniture/prop changes during the scene breaks — and there are a lot of scenes, making the play episodic in a way that works better for TV than for the stage.
But the bigger problem is that there’s too much balance with the comedy writing and Alzheimer’s angles, making the comic bits not very funny.
Marty was a Borscht Belt comedian, but even as he’s obviously respected, his shtick never comes across as groundbreaking nor as original as the other comedians in his league whom he mentions.
Even so, Stephens is marvelous as Marty, hitting all of the notes of this complicated character — a man who, like every performer who puts himself out onstage, wants to be a loved by the people around him as much as he does by his fans. There’s a sad-clown quality to him, and Stephens makes us feel for this flawed and misunderstood man.
With the Starbright character, the play has something to say about Vapid Box Office Bait and Vapid Box Office Bait Parts 2, 3 and 7. Jamison does her best work in a while as the woman who’s appreciative of the films that made her a good living but wants something more substantive for her tombstone.
Allen’s play — and Covault’s production — picks up steam in the second act; the final comedy scene between Marty and Jackie beautifully wraps up everything the playwright is trying to say with this script.
When the people in Marty’s life can’t quite find the words to express their concern about his illness, comedy swoops in and does the thing it does best. Too bad the first act, which is at least twice as long as the second, doesn’t get anyone in the laughter mind-set.