Monday, November 07, 2016

Prime Time for the Holidays

The bowl of Halloween candy hasn’t even been emptied yet and I’ve already seen my first Christmas play.

The Woodland Opera House’s “Prime Time for the Holidays,” isn’t exactly a Christmas play, but it does have a Christmas theme and re-arranged Christmas carols. (The Family Series will be presenting “The Christmas Story” starting Dec. 2.)

The play is the first produced play for longtime Opera House actor and director Bob Cooner, who also directs with Matthew Abergel. The inspiration for the show was Cooner’s love of prime-time sitcoms of the 1960s and ’70s.

While it is mildly amusing, this comedy itself is not quite ready for prime time. The idea and the elements are all there, but lines often fall flat and there is little laughter from the audience. It is entertaining, but just not knee-slapping funny.

Cooner’s cast is just about unanimously excellent and it is a shame that they don’t have better material to work with.

Cookie Simms (Kristen Wagner) and Ray Gardner (Scott Martin) are America’s favorite TV couple and their variety show celebrates their seemingly perfect marriage, though in real life they have not lived together in months since Ray fell in love with his therapist Amanda Schoenfeld (Patricia Glass).

Cookie’s best friend Barbara (Deborah Hammond) is encouraging her to serve the divorce papers she has filled out on Ray, though she can’t quite bring herself to do that.

The TV show is in trouble because someone accidentally erased the tape of this week’s show and the producer (Jason Hammond) gets the idea to do a reality broadcast, a Christmas show from the couple’s home, which is going to be difficult since the two of them can barely speak to each other.

But it must be done, or their sponsor has threatened to remove not only sponsorship of their program, but of all the network programs.

There are lots of slapstick moments, some that work and some that don’t, and some that are just dumb — like nobody thinks to tell the sponsor, Mason Montgomery (Steve Cairns), that he shouldn’t flush the toilet or walk onto the set during filming? Nobody warns anybody that if they walk back and forth in back of the set (or conduct a fistfight there) it will be broadcast?

The character who perhaps is the funniest and gets the biggest laughs is Gil Sebastian as the washed-up comedian Bernie Marks. Marks is confused, but he’s a trouper who can toss out old jokes professionally, jokes that the audience (including the one in the Opera House) have known for years. Sebastian, in his befuddled-ness, does bring a spark of life to an otherwise bald and unconvincing plot.

There are funny opportunities missed, like Cookie’s desperate search for a cigarette, which seems to be forgotten when the sponsor, a tobacco company representative smoking a cigarette, comes onto the stage. There is no reaction from Cookie until much later.

But, as I said, the actors are excellent. Both Wagner and Martin are likeable and it’s easy to see how they became America’s sweethearts.

Deborah Hammond again gives a memorable performance, as Cookie’s friend, mistaken by Montgomery as the maid. Cairns gives one of the strongest performances in the show, though his character’s continual racist comments are more irritating than funny, but Deborah Hammond makes them funny by her reaction.

Jason Hammond is full of bluster and anger and a perfect producer, trying to make his stars do what he wants them to do.

Patricia Glass’ character as the “man-stealing psychoanalyst” is just annoying. Glass does well creating a stereotypical uptight analyst, but spends most of her time being pushed into another room or giving boring lectures analyzing behavior of one or the other characters. She, too, is completely unaware of when she is and is not on live camera.

Daniel Silva as Chip Gardner, Cookie and Ray’s college-age son, gives a laconic performance when he’s home from school and caught in the middle of his parents’ marital problems. He comes into his own when paired with guest star Lesley Lyle (Kristen Myers), a fiery singer/dancer apparently more interested in making out with Chip than in performing. Myers, tossing her Britney Spears-like hair around, is great fun to watch.

A small band — consisting of Chris Schlagel, Cassandra Brokken and Jim Nakayama — accompanies the cast in singing several Christmas songs, none of which is performed in any way that will sound familiar.

This is a mildly enjoyable, though not outstanding, first effort by Cooner. It probably will appeal more to older audiences than younger ones.

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