All Things Entertaining and Cultural
A Main Line woman gets a divorce, moves to a riverview apartment on the banks of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill, and can’t afford the rent. She places an ad for roommates, and although she claims to be particular, ends up sharing her flat with two misfits, one a sexpot from New Jersey, one an extroverted cowgirl from Texas, the latter played incidentally by a man.
Playwright Alil Vardar was at best aiming for some lighthearted comedy from his mismatched trio, but any entertainment value from his play, reported to be a big multi-year hit in France, is dashed by the broad, disjointed, and pandering production directed by Vardar’s brother, Hazis Vardar, for Penn’s Landing Theatre in Philadelphia’s Seaport Museum.
The production falters from the first syllable Aileen Goldberg utters as the relocating socialite. Her accent is too exaggerated, and her delivery is too overstated, almost as if she’s parodying a screwball comedy in which everyone affects posh speech and oversized movement. Goldberg’s overdoing is seen and doubled by Stephen Croce’s raunchy western belle who would no more fit with the socialite than she would the women in “How to Marry a Millionaire.” Or anyone. Except maybe a horse.
I know we’re eventually supposed to take to Bridget, the cowgirl’s open way of expressing herself, mostly in sexual innuendo, but it doesn’t work. Croce is a comedian who cuts a wide swath across a stage and strives for a big performance, but it all seems overworked in Vardar’s production.
The third roommate, Marie, one the socialite would have also rejected on sight, is a bit better. She is a party girl, a bombshell who thinks drinks and men are the sum of life and who knows how to primp, if garishly, for a fun night out. But as with Bethany, the Main Liner, and Bridget, Vardar keeps his characters one-joke wonders who rarely do or say anything even closely resembling conversation but who are given stage business and set-up jokes to shout.
Occasionally, a line, thought, or delivery is funny. “The Divorcees Club” can provide a laugh or two. But Vardar’s production looks more like a tourist trap concoction for Las Vegas than is does a finished show. It can’t even compete with its obvious model, the TV series “Three’s Company,” for quality, and that is sad.
Croce stomps across the stage and revels in broad business, so “The Divorcees Club” and its raucous style seems to suit him. Aileen Goldberg has done better work and seems to be adhering to direction that favors an obedient performance more than a polished one. Kellie Cooper, as Marie, fares the best. Yes, she overplays her dumb blonde bit, but at least you see a core of reality, a real person behind her benightedness. Croce and Goldberg come off more as actors romping through a comedy without giving much thought to character, lines, or presentation. They were told to be outlandishly zany, and they are.
The problem is it’s not entertaining. It borders on insulting.
“The Divorcees Club” gives its audience no credit. It pushes punch lines and tries to dictate what is funny and force laughs. As a result, Vardar’s hambone jokes, some with beards as long as Methusaleh’s, hang in midair and have no effect. I am not sure whether “The Divorcees Club” would play better if all of its excesses were whittled down to a few quirks here and there, but as it stands now, the show talks down to the audience, asking it to laugh at the corny and accept pandemonium as funny for its own sake.
That would be difficult because Hazis Vardar did not orchestrate his show well. The production sprawls all over the stage and has no consistent rhythm or mood.
It also doesn’t have good ideas. We get that the roommates have different background and different outlooks on life. In a decent production, even of a bad play, there would be some chance the three would bond and become chums. Vardar’s plot wends that way, but it’s impossible to see a peaceful existence among Bethany, Bridget, and Marie happening. Since Marie comes the closest to being recognizably authentic, there’s no hopes these opposites will coalesce into a group.
Beyond a few lines, mostly Bridget’s, I sat waiting for the 90 minutes to pass until I could politely exit the theater. I can’t even recommend “The Divorcees Club” as a dismissible lark. As Gertrude Stein said about Oakland, “There’s no there there.” There’s no spine to Hazis Vardar’s direction and little cohesion to Alil Vardar’s play. The piece plays like an improvised mess. Even an extended sequence about placing want ads for dates — Yes, I said want ads, in a newspaper yet! — fails to give Vardar’s play structure or intensity.
Croce may do well as a game show host or in a part where broad comedy and flouncing is the ticket. The actor has obvious talent, but it’s overextended in this production and becomes obnoxious. Croce wants to be Paul Lynde and is more like the loud kid who ruins the party. Except for the joke of it, there is no reason Bridget needs to be played by a man in drag.
Aileen Goldberg stays true to her impersonation of Bethany throughout the play, but her bit seems unnatural and wears out its welcome.
Kelli Cooper and Marie give each other a fighting chance, and while we never quite believe Marie is more than a type, Cooper gives her some personality and offers some sense that somewhere on Earth Marie exists.
“The Divorcees Club” doesn’t give itself enough of a fair shake to rate one. Without severe redirection and some sense of character, it remains a misguided exercise in bad comedy that makes no attempt at quality.
“The Divorcees Club” runs through Sunday, March 22, at Penn’s Landing Theatre in the Independence Seaport Museum at Delaware Avenue (Columbus Boulevard) and Walnut Streets, in Philadelphia. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range from $55 to $25 and can be obtained by calling 855-HIT-SHOW (855=448-7469) or visiting www.smarttix.com.