Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Gingerbread Lady"

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note: entire contents copyright 2009 by Larry Stark

"The Gingerbread Lady"

by Neil Simon
Directed by Mikey DiLoreto

Lighting Design by Greg Jutkiewiczs
Sound Design by Andrew Hicks
Set & Costume Design by Mikey DiLoreto
Hair/Make-Up Design by Gina DiGirolamo
Photographer Bruce DiLoreto
Graphic Design by Terrence Patrick Haddad
Assistant to The Director Barbara DiGirolamo
Company Manager Rebecca Jackson
Rehearsal Stage Manager Stacy Fox
Production Stage Manager Lizette M. Morris

Jimmy Perry.......Victor Shopov
Manuel..............Mike Budwey
Toby Landau...Audry Lynn Sylvia
Evy Meara........Crystal Lisbon
Polly Meara...Lesley Ann Moreau
Lou Tanner.......Michael Fisher

In a nothing little sex-farce caled "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" --- one of the very first Broadway shows I ever saw --- a hack writer makes a pact with the devil and asks for a Tony-winning script for his playwright friend. He hands him a script, then three more. "What are these?" "Re-writes. You put these in in Philadelphia, these in New Haven and these in Boston. Then you get your Tony."

That was then.
At the time, Neil Simon was the hottest, the funniest writer on Broadway, and probably the richest. I suspect he wrote "The Gingerbread Lady" to prove that under all that "Odd Couple" comedy he had serious balls. As the play opens a minor "saloon-singer" named Evy Meara is coming home from months in re-hab: a successfully dried drunk. Welcoming her home are her best friends --- a bit-playing actor and a blocked writer, and as a surprise the 17-year-old daughter who has begged Evy's ex-husband to let her live with her mother. And since they are all Neil Simon people they are the wittiest people on earth --- people so witty they never laugh at one another, though any audience rolls in the aisles at what they say. (I rolled right with them.)

They are all incredibly needy people, burying their failures in zingers (and in booze), all of them There for one another whenever they fall apart. But coincidences are a motor in Doc Simon's comedies, and what happens when every one of Evy's close friends fall apart on the same damn day? (I told you the bastard has balls, didn't I? And I think maybe I'll pour myself another vodka-tonic.)

The show is old-fashioned enough to fall into three acts.
The first introduces all the characters. Playing Evy here is Crystal Lisbon. She is too young, too pretty to have a 17-year-old daughter (nor to have lost 42 pounds in re-hab), but expertly tosses off quips, and when the gloves come off the ferocity with which she goes toe-to-toe with her tormentors is frightening. She thoroughly understands the difference between the glittery surface and the gritty subtext of this woman's laugh-riot tragedy, and spares herself nor the audience nothing showing it.

Victor Shopov is the actor Jimmy Perry, finally working after months of auditions and self-doubt, who clings to past triumphs to get him through dry times that feel like desserts. In act two, he ricochets from the most degrading off-Broadway insults imaginable, and now and again the audience will erupt with isolated yelps of empathy when the slings and arrows actors must endure touch nerves.

As Toby Landau, Audry Lynn Sylvia is bonded with any mirror, hoping that, paint an inch thick, she can hide any inadequacy with make-up. Max Factor fails, and so does her marriage, but --- like Dotty Parker at the Algonquin --- her wit? Never!

There is an unexpected visitor welcoming Evy home from re-hab: Michael Fisher as folk-singer Lou Tanner --- the six-month shack-up whose infidelity drove poor Evy to the bottle in the first place. He is, despite his tendency to blacken her eyes when a lyric won't gel, her last --- inadequate --- refuge in adversity. At least he loves her, and admits their life together, however harrowing, was the best six months of his lack-luster career. But in her new-found, sober, act-one clarity, it is a victory to show him the door.

But what of the kid?
Lesley Ann Moreau is Polly --- and is there a hint here of "Pollyanna"? --- the kid whose steadfast love and grudging respect ultimately holds Evy together enough to survive. Or is it her naive youth? She comes, in act one, determined to make mom Be mom --- and ends up trying to be her own mom's mother. Like Holden Caulfield, she must be old beyond her years --- and handle laugh-lines that a genius wrote for her.

Have I left anyone out?
Funny you should ask. Mike Budwey has the (here) thankless role of Manuel --- an uppity Spic delivery-boy trying to insist on cash-not-charge from a known dead-beat customer --- until Evy (addicted to something more than booze) seduces him into forgetting his employer's flinch-fisted demands. This is a classic Neil Simon role: a young stud with purse-power asserting his brief authority.

But on to act two.
This is the supposedly happy birthday of poor Polly, with both of Evy's stallwart supporters arriving trailing debris from their shattered lives. As they show their wounds and compare lacerations, out of the corner of the eye astute audiences may catch Evy guzzling wine straight from the bottle. And --- and this is Neil Simon's triumph --- though witty to a fault when sober, she is no-nonsense wounding, unfunny, and vindictive when drunk.
The title comes from a child's birthday-present: a gingerbread cottage with a gingerbread mom as resident. When the gingerbread crumbles --- watch out!

And --- act three?
Well, people live --- or try to live --- past adversities, don't they? Morning-afters and hang-overs may not be pleasant, but the throbbing pains mean you're still alive, right? The cast re-assembles, because they have nothing but themslves to cling to. Polly, in this --- the version of the play done on Broadway --- saves the day. bloodied but unbowed, she and her mom face the final curtain and the future with wounds bandaged and hope in their hearts.

If you'd ever seen and liked the film called "The Gingerbread Lady" --- and I expected originally to say this in my first paragraph --- you owe it to yourself to get to The Factory Theatre this week to watch The Happy Medium Theatre Company wash all that emasculated treacle out of your minds. Their awareness of the serious subtexts of the script, and their willingness to find and play them, is excellently admirable.

My problem as audience, though, is that I saw (and I think reviewed) that play's opening here in Boston try-outs. In those days, Neil Simon's name on a markee meant Funny, not Serious. Apparently the producers watched the show and decided that, yes, it might fly, but if it did not have a happy ending it could not make any money on Broadway.
In the re-writes, money won.
When I saw it here, poor Evy was left alone in act three by all her bruised and bleeding friends --- until the re-entrance of Manuel, that opportunist delivery-boy willing to take the cost of groceries out In Trade.

The Happy Medium Theatre Company is a gutsy new company willing to take as many risks as Neil Simon lets them (and Director Mikey DiLoreto needs praise for letting, forcing them to do this show justice). But there's only one week-end left for you to find out how good they really are.

===Anon. ( a k a larry stark )

"The Gingerbread Lady" (11 - 20 September)
The Factory Theatre, 791 Tremont Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (???) ???-????

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