The Coffee Shop – Tedium Roast
A REVIEW BY THE BAD ORACLE
So, I’m watching The Wire for the first time (I know, I know, 2006 called, you’re going to need to take a message, tho). One of the simplest pleasures, watching that show as a Baltimoreon, is recognizing that I know where and what the characters are talking about. I know where the Chicken Box on North Avenue is, I know what Flag House Courts is (or was, anyway). It’s a little bit of a thrill, it connects me more deeply with the world of the show because it’s literally my world. Unfortunately, name-dropping is one of the only real joys of Davis Gable’s The Coffee Shop, and uh, “the Bed, Bath and Beyond in White Marsh” doesn’t quiiiiite have the same ring to it.
It’s not that Gable doesn’t have the knack of writing naturally, it’s that there’s such a thing as too natural. Ever have a new boyfriend, and you go to hang out with him and his friends who all know each other, and you don’t, and you have to nod along and seem politely interested, while you completely zone out? That’s watching The Coffee Shop. Gable’s note says that he based the characters on real people, and yeah, no shit. They couldn’t be more real than if I actually sat in a Starbucks listening to Bel Air housewives gossip. The problem is that they’re dull. I don’t know, maybe if I were one of the individuals that the show was based on, then I could feel something. But putting a bunch of folks into a space and having them talk is not the same thing as writing a play. Let me be clear: people are not boring. People just appear boring because we’ve been socialized into blandness (I have a friend who characterizes this as the “Yeah, I broke up with my boyfriend, I got a cat,” conversation). People, in their heads and hearts, are twisted and weird, crazy, we’re all crazy. Good theater exists in that gap between the representational and the actual. Good theater is communal longing or internal space or relationship dynamics or corridors of the soul or a mirror to your own man behind the curtain. Good theater says something. It has intention. This is 120 minutes of play with 5 minutes of tension. It’s not about anything. “Friendship” is a concept, not a plot. There’s no conflict, apart from a very, very minor sibling squabble. And the kicker is, when Gable isn’t sure how to introduce dramatic moments, he just straight up cribs Steel Magnolias. Yes. I’ve seen that movie a million times, and clearly so has he, because he’s lifting jokes, inflections, entire scenes. There’s line where a script stops being an homage and starts being purloined. No spoilers, but he fucking crosses it.
The performances, however, are a different story. It was a little painful, actually, because what we have here are good actors, some quite good, struggling to make something boring…not. You’d think that they’d be tempted to go over the top, but it doesn’t happen. In fact, I think that director Jason Crawford Samios-Uy could have pushed the acting further, bigger, even. I normally don’t recommend that, but man, this time, yes. Samios-Uy is in the show, too, playing the flamboyant Logan Carrington, and he is a joy to watch. He’s fun, and funny and, sure, he might have all the best lines but he also knows how to handle them. I enjoyed the big-eyed Christie Arnie in last spring’s Daddy’s Dyin’ Who’s Got the Will?, also Just Off Broadway, and I enjoyed her here, although her character, Mandy (SHELBY HER NAME IS SHELBY), is so derivative that it’s distracting. I was a little surprised to see Sean Kelly pop up as senator’s son Connor Carpenter. I last tracked him in Iron Crow’s The Revelation of Bobby Pritchard and thought he was quite special then and I still do. He’s the kind of actor who is so beautifully relaxed and self-assured. Patrick Jay Golden does a nicely credible change halfway through the show and Jennifer Skarzinski, playing his control-freak sister, Michelle, seems to actually morph into Sally Field in her last monologue, but that’s hardly her fault, now is it? Lydia West smiles her way bravely through as shop-owner Carley, one of the least realized characters in the show.
Tech is usually pretty minimal for a stage like JOB and Shop is no exception. I did appreciate set designer Theresa Bonvegna’s small touches, such as the Baltimore-local fliers (Loading Dock, holla) tacked up in the background and the fact that the place is a dead ringer for Patterson Perk. I’d lose those horrible tablecloths, though, they look sloppy and do nothing for the overall. Then again, the place only serves six customers, no one else even stops by to use the bathroom in a whole year, so perhaps the tablecloths are the least of Carley’s concerns. Who knows?
BOTTOM LINE: The Coffee Shop was written as a student project and, because it’s appeal is most likely limited to the students it was based on, it probably should have stayed that way (no excuse, though, for the stealing from another, better, work). Just Off Broadway gets so little thrown their way, why they would want to hamstring themselves further is beyond me. But the actors are game and producing original theater is a valiant effort, indeed.
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