Archangels Don't Play Pinball

Also: John & Jen.

Archangels Don't Play Pinball

Capitol Hill Arts Center; ends Sat., July 30

If director Matthew Kwatinetz's rowdy staging of Dario Fo's surrealist satire could relax and believe it was genuinely funny, then the rest of us could relax and genuinely laugh—as opposed to smiling and good-naturedly granting it two hours of goofball good intentions, which, for the most part, is exactly what happens.

Gabriel Baron is Tiny, a lovable sap used by his fellow crooks to both bilk the unsuspecting and amuse themselves. The hoods make an error in judgment, however, by setting our hero up in a phony wedding to a browbeaten tramp named Angela (Emily Chisholm), who so charms Tiny that he swears to become a better person and live up to his birth moniker, Sunny ("'Cause after tonight I'm gonna be happy my father gave me that name," he says sweetly). Deliverance means variously outsmarting his no-good buddies, a veterans' registration office that has mistakenly classified him as a pooch, and a shady Texas senator who's out to build more dog pounds.

No, the ardently outspoken Fo isn't pratfalling without purpose—there's still time for a lesson about "anyone who allows himself to be muzzled without a whimper of protest"—but he's less on his soapbox than usual. So Kwatinetz and company take the political slapstick and decide to push it one step further, egging on the playwright's vaudevillian amiability until the show is far more concerned with the brothers Marx than with that didactic fellow Karl. Designer Richard MacKenzie's aptly artificial sliding door set is opened and closed by a couple of winking, dolled-up tarts in red minis and gloves; the actors wryly berate one another every time a joke tanks; and the nifty, nimble two-man band (John Ackermann and music director Dan Dennis) has no trouble talking back to lippy performers.

The conceit seems exceedingly well-planned, which often means the comedy is exceedingly far from spontaneous and sometimes less than light. The extended slapstick routines are all about execution and not quite as focused on punch lines. When Tiny finds himself an initially helpless pinball bounced back and forth between the windows of the disinterested bureaucracy in the registrar's office, you applaud the would-be bravura gag not so much for its end result as for its effort. There aren't many explosively funny payoffs because the show is all explosions.

Part of the problem is how Kwatinetz uses Baron, a tireless jester who never met a facial expression he didn't like. The production needs a baffled, Chaplin-esque clown at the center of its noisy comic storm; Baron is the storm at the center of the storm. The central role might have worked better with Basil Harris, who, as a number of truly funny supporting buffoons (including that libidinous senator), has a contained lunacy even when his eyes are popping out of his head.

Still, Baron's kinetic enthusiasm spills over into an appropriately summer-in-the-park kind of playfulness that will have you forgiving his self-conscious cleverness. And he and Kwatinetz must be doing something right because you'll swear your heart will break if Fo doesn't allow poor Tiny a redemptive reunion with his beloved Angela. Chisholm, a recent Cornish grad last seen practically donating a kidney as the stark raving Chicklet of Psycho Beach Party at Northwest Actors Studio, suggests the softhearted, hard-boiled pluck of 1930s screwball comedians; her technique hasn't yet solidified—she's fussing too much for effect (well, nearly everyone here is doing the same)—but if Seattle doesn't give her several more opportunities to hone her craft, it'll be our loss. She's the picture of tender zaniness, and she and Baron develop a genuinely sweet rapport that carries us through to the climax.

All things considered, the show is a merry mélange that really, really wants you to have a good time. You do, although the result is something less spectacular than an entertainment that knows you'll enjoy it and saves you the work of admiring its ambitions.

John & Jen

Theater Schmeater; ends Sat., July 16

Everything happens that you suppose will happen in Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald's two-person musical. Charting the decades-long affection that Jen (Ann Evans) holds for little brother John and then his namesake nephew (both played by Brian Earp), the piece has all the heartache and tune-filled uplift you know you're going to get from any show wedging the perils of both an abusive dad and the Vietnam War into its contrivances. What's surprising is how fetching it is, anyway, and how perfectly satisfying this local production of it manages to be.

It's a simple—and, yes, sometimes simplistic—show that might've gone wrong at any turn. Act I follows Jen and her six-years-younger brother from childhood through the early '70s, when she runs away from their angry house to burn the American flag while he, naturally, stifles his hurt to salute it as an enlisted man. (Why are the people in most popular entertainment about this period in U.S. history so narrowly defined? Surely there was someone just sitting at home watching I Dream of Jeannie and silently contemplating whether or not Nixon was an asshole.) Act II shows us a guilt-ridden Jen smothering her begrudgingly devoted young son with displaced love right up until his high-school graduation, when they finally let go of one another with a poignant, hopeful duet titled "Every Goodbye Is Hello."

Lippa is best known for composing one of the two competing flop versions of the '20s poem The Wild Party a few years back, but whatever you think of that ambitious venture, his work here has a more disarming intimacy, segueing seamlessly from the perky to the plaintive and back again as Jen and both Johns grow and change over the years (it's helped by the purity of Parade composer Jason Robert Brown's rolling orchestration for piano and cello, lovingly played here by, respectively, music director Mark Rabe and Sally Stroum). Greenwald's lyrics lean on cliché, but utilize propulsive, character-driven shorthand that quickly fills us in on the characters' disparate emotional lives (Jen: "I organized a march against the war"; John: "Dad says you don't love us anymore"). Lippa and Greenwald's book forgoes subtlety—we get a lot of exposition like, "I'm 5 years old, you can't tell me what to do!"—but also has a cagey sense of humor; the '80s and '90s pass by as a series of smarmy, Sally Jesse Raphael–type talk shows focusing on troubled mother/son relationships.

Evans is a little miscast as the headstrong Jen, the only one of the three characters who has to show generations of literal growth; it's a minor but nagging suspension of disbelief to watch this particular middle-aged actress playing a child, a teenager, and, most uncomfortably, an acid-dropping collegiate hippie. Yet she works well with Earp, and her singing has unexpected nuances. She hits the right dramatic notes, too, whenever Cynthia White stops telling her to stare out at the audience to pound a thematic point on the head.

Nineteen-year-old Earp, meanwhile, is splendid from beginning to end. He has what used to be called an all-American wholesomeness that doesn't turn saccharine, and he ably manipulates his warm voice to keep the second John from too much resembling the first. His open, emotive face is a real asset, and John's reactions—in both acts—to a person he both loves and doesn't understand have a touching immediacy; he's really listening, registering the guarded emotions of a wounded boy.

Aside from her occasional indulgences with Evans, White wisely doesn't stop for sentiment, trusting her material enough to make its points and then moving on. The show flows at a nice clip, and so successfully achieves its goals, you wish the bigwigs at the 5th Avenue would take a lesson in how quietly stirring the idea of less- is-more can be. This is a co-presentation of Emerging Artists, White Raven Productions, and Contemporary Classics. If they've got further easy, unpretentious entertainment like this up their sleeves, sign me up.

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