Out of Sterno punches the same punchline far too often.
Out of Sterno, by Deborah Zoe Laufer. Directed by Paula Plum. Presented by Gloucester Stage Company, at the Gorton Theatre, 267 East Main Street, E. Gloucester, MA, through July 18.
By Robert Israel
The aptly named Dotty (Amanda Collins) is a twenty-something airhead. Her world view is always bright, despite the dark clouds that gather ominously overhead. She spews bromides and radiates a hayseed’s faith that good always wins out in the end. Alas, exposure to her perpetual sunny side up is not enough to sustain Deborah Zoe Laufer’s uneven and overlong play about characters who are better suited to inhabit comic book panels than walk about the stage. Early on we get a good look at the detritus of Dotty’s life littering the stage – represented by piles of trash, gewgaws, and empty paint containers (she dabbles in arts and crafts). We know (all-too-well) that Dotty is hellbound for a fall from innocence — and that her awakening will not only be rude, but perilous.
As a thematic device, Dotty’s befuddlement in the face of misfortune is a sure fire way to get laughs. But it comes at considerable cost. Laufer is too enamored with her character’s sappy illusions; the playwright weighs the action down (to the point of irritation) with her love of evoking the treadmill of life’s absurdity — repeated phrases, lines, and scenes do not become funnier through familiarity.
Joining Dotty in this Fun House/House of Horrors is her husband, Hamel (Noah Teleja), whom she worships, but who, we learn, is not the burning hunk of love that Dotty believes him to be. In truth, he’s a thug whose affection for her takes second fiddle to his philandering. The object of Hamel’s greatest affection is Zena (Jennifer Ellis), who runs Zena’s Beauty Emporium. A fourth character (who morphs into eight walk-on roles) is Dan, (played with marvelous aplomb by Richard Snee).
The overarching theme is how, for at least some women, independence must be earned through repeated scenes of humiliation (most of them self-inflicted). Some of these feminist jolts are extremely funny, and the GSC cast members are nothing if not pumped up — their collective enthusiasm invigorate the show’s one-note comedy of degradation. The scenes between Dotty and Zena are often hilarious in a darkly humorous way. Zena tosses the script’s best barbs, lobbing them at Dotty as if they were sticky spitballs. “How do you cleanse your face?” she asks Dotty. “With epoxy?” But the amusement provided by these expertly crafted zingers are undercut by single-mindedness of the script — the same punchline is punched far too often.
For example, Dotty is fond of quoting her mother’s bromides about life, worn-to-the-nub adages that seem to have been lifted out of Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac. “My mother always says make your man the center of your world and you’ll never get lost.” A few of these stale nuggets of wisdom peppered throughout the play would have sufficed. But a dozen variations? It turns out that Laufer never strays far from the center of her undernourished conflict — we never feel as if the play is moving forward. It just seems to end because it has to. The challenge for Out of Sterno is to make us root that the optimistic-to-a-fault Dotty, as she zigs and zags through hard times, will capture the flag – not a flag of surrender, but a flag of triumph. We want to feel that she is more than a puppet made to be buffeted again and again for the sake of our laughter — that she can arrive at some kind of a new life. But that never happens.
In my many years of attending plays at the GSC’s Gorton Theatre, I never realized what a vast playing space it is. Set designer Jon Savage was determined to use just about every inch available — the action sprawls about and around. A more concentrated theater area may have pulled us into Dotty’s cluttered, claustrophobic world sooner, or at least made us feel the pain of her captivity more keenly. As it is stands now, the mass accumulation is too much and too wasteful. There is nothing, really, to pull us into this character’s plight, so we just end up looking at all the debris, eyes glazed. On the other hand, the production’s costumes, designed by Elisabetta Polito, are inspired, particularly the “I’m-too-sexy-for-my-shirts” donned by Hamel, and the numerous colorful outfits worn by Dan. Alas, the GSC actors are all dressed up but have nowhere very interesting to go.
Robert Israel writes about theater, travel and the arts, and is a member of Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org