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Short North Stage’s The Performers is a Burst of Zany Fun

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Short North Stage’s The Performers is a Burst of Zany FunVictor Little as adult film star Chuck Wood, left to right, chats with Lauren Monteleone as Sundown Lamay and Dionysia Williams as Sara in the Short North Stage production of “The Performers.” Photo by Nick Lingnofski.
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David Read West’s 2012 Broadway comedy The Performers gets a sympathetic, supercharged production directed by Edward Carignan (assistant directed by Nick Lingnofski) at Short North Stage.

In classic farce style, The Performers throws together characters on the tip of change together in a series of cramped spaces. Here, those spaces revolve around pornography’s biggest night: the AVN Awards. Strait-laced journalist Lee (Greg Mallios) and his fiancee Sara (Dionysia Williams) are having a last – and maybe first – flirtation with wildness before they marry under the auspices of Lee interviewing rising porn star Mandrew (James Sargent), also one of their childhood friends.

James Sargent as porn star Mandrew, left to right, describes his film life with Greg Mallios as his high-school friend Lee in the Short North Stage production of “The Performers.” Photo by Nick Lingnofski.

James Sargent as porn star Mandrew, left to right, describes his film life with Greg Mallios as his high-school friend Lee in the Short North Stage production of “The Performers.” Photo by Nick Lingnofski.

Mandrew’s looking for respect in the industry: torn between his love for his wife Peeps (Melissa Jones) and her greater prominence in the industry and worried about the return of the legendary star Chuck Wood (Victor D’wayne Little), competing against him for several awards. Peeps worries about being left behind by her friend and rival Sundown LeMay (Lauren Monteleone), Mandrew’s costar, and with the revelation she’s pregnant.

Generosity fuels this play: West’s writing loves these characters. When the writing goes for a cheap joke, it never leans on harsh judgment. When the play gets weak, it slips into a sentimental sitcom, refreshing in a play about outsiders. James Sargent is perfect here, carrying the play on his back for long stretches and making it look easy. His turn as Mandrew strikes a rare balance of cartoonish wildness and open-hearted earnestness. Jones is the perfect foil for him, injecting strength and vulnerability into her character while sacrificing none of Peeps’ anarchic Looney Tunes qualities. I could have watched those two fire barbs and bounce off each other for hours.

Carignan’s production understands that the middle-America couple is the photographic negative of the porn stars, not the other way around. He doesn’t stop the flow of jokes and antics to waste our time with the backstory of these point-of-view characters. In these supporting roles, Williams’ Sara has more to do, and she makes the most of every moment given her. Her knack for physical comedy makes her clumsy seduction attempts on Chuck Wood highlights of the show.

Eli Brickey as a hotel maid, left to right, plays cat games with Lisa Glover as her colleague in the Short North Stage production of “The Performers.” Photo by Nick Lingnofski.

Eli Brickey as a hotel maid, left to right, plays cat games with Lisa Glover as her colleague in the Short North Stage production of “The Performers.” Photo by Nick Lingnofski.

Monteleone’s Sundown is more catalyst than anything but her bewildered, likable take is delightful. Little’s Chuck Wood steals the show at key moments. His take on Wood tears into the character’s Lion of Winter moment and Little relishes the wistful done-it-all tone as the character has to accept his elder statesman status.

The final scenes lose steam as the now-we-explain-the-moral-about-believing-in-yourself-and-your friends sitcom elements come to the fore. The production understands that sweetness, and its use, but keeps the show moving at a clip where even the more cynical of us in the audience smile at the goodwill we’ve developed for these characters. Keeping the show moving is abetted by hysterical video work by Lingnofski. Scene shifts, Bill Pierson’s ingenious set reconfigured from a hotel room to a bar to awards stage, feature the delightful Eli Brickey and Lisa Glover as vinyl-clad maid parodies in mini dance numbers.

There are elements of the original play that aren’t fully formed. But the Green Room production of The Performers is electric, flirty fun that moves like a cartoon. In a season of gray slush, long shadows, and biting wind, this could be just what we need.

The Performers runs through February 25 with shows at 8:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 3:00 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more info, visit shortnorthstage.org

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