Somewhere in the ‘90s, I read a book by a TV writer. He said that sitcom producers didn’t care whether or not a sitcom was actually funny. They’re more concerned with whether or not the characters are likable. They really don’t care about actual humor. Humor’s great, but likability brings in t he ratings. Back in college I thought this was awful. Over the years I’ve warmed to it, though. Last night I saw a staged comedic drama. As a comedy, Daniel MacIvor’s Small Things isn’t terribly funny. As a drama it’s enjoyable. The cast was good enough that I didn’t miss the humor. Laughs are cheap. A genuine emotional connection with a few characters is priceless. Boulevard Theatre’s pleasantly humorous production of MacIvor’s play manages a few genuine moments of emotional connection on a small stage on the upper east side.
It’s a contemporary story about three generations of women learning to cope with life and each other in the country. The interactions between the three women resonate organically through a cozy, little space with a high ceiling.
Christine Horgen plays Patricia Branch--a retired schoolteacher looking for someone to help out around the house. The script seems to be playing her as an imposing conservative figure. The dialogue seems to conjure-up images of that calcified, old figure in primary school who had been teaching there forever and seemed to be able to see through everything with chilling wisdom. Here she is years later in a series of social interactions that involve (gasp) marijuana and dealing with another stubborn person. What I love about Horgen onstage is her approachability. She’s got a very warm presence that takes the edge off the stereotype, giving it a respectable depth.
Donna L. Lobacz plays the help that Branch hires. They call her Birdy. She’s stubborn, but in a different way than Branch. Where was Branch starts out as stern and inert, Birdy’s stubbornness comes from social authority through sheer inertia. She’s the neighbor that comes to your door to introduce herself and ends up running everything inside your home half an hour later. Naturally she’s going to run into some problems here...the sitcom version of unstoppable force and unmovable object. Much like Horgen, Lobacz has a really affable presence onstage which seems to undermine the more stubborn aspects of the character’s personality. A key part of the drama requires that Birdy have difficulty with the idea of her grandson identifying herself as a girl named Alice. The script seems to be asking her to come across as unwilling to accept a non-cisgender kid, but Lobacz doesn’t do a terribly good job of selling it. This isn’t a bad thing. I actually kind of like what it does to the overall thrust of the conflict. Breathing through Lobacz, Birdy is a woman who can’t seem to conjure up enough visceral aggression to justify why it is that she can’t accept her grandson identifying as a granddaughter. It paints an interesting picture of casual lack of tolerance due to lack of understanding. Interesting stuff.
Nicole Gorski plays Birdy’s daughter Dell. She’s one of the most vibrant and robust physical forces onstage. The script asks us to accept her as being a mother of two who is lost in her own life path and looking to find some direction. On one level, Branch starts-off as someone who has closed herself off from the world while Birdy starts-off as someone incapable of closing herself off from the world. Dell is trying to find a comfortable path somewhere between the two. Gorski has a magnetic energy onstage that seems to lack the restlessness that the script might suggest in favor of a more calming influence suggested by some of the deeper wisdom written into some of her dialogue. This does interesting things to the character’s apparent lack of direction. The lack of motivation in certain aspects of life almost seems like an afterthought as she tries to develop a practical understanding of what she already knows in her heart.
The dialogue and overall plot development of Small Things’ script seem to suggest characters that start out as stereotypes which are gradually revealed to be something richer and more complex. The Boulevard ensemble tilts the script from the start with actresses of depth amplifying the more endearing edges of the drama in a comfy, little performance space on the east side.
Boulevard Theatre’s staging of Small Things runs through Oct. 8 at Plymouth Church on 2717 E. Hampshire. For more information, visit The Boulevard online.