The Muddy Cup Theater is the back room of a coffee house in Staten Island, newly refurbished as a theatre. Sundog Theatre (Susan Fenley, artistic director) had the honor of presenting the first play there, the entertaining if flawed comedy Jason's Journey.
The story concerns a soon-to-married couple (Jason and Dana, played by Kevin Gay and Melissa Herman) whose upcoming wedding looks iffy: one day at work (he's a lawyer), Jason decides to drop out and write the Great American Novel, taking off to a cabin in the woods. (The "writing gods" made him do it.)
And do it he does -- even while Dana is upbraiding him for being so selfish, and he is repeating the reasons, such as they are, for his actions, he finds he can magically write ream after ream of stuff, without even knowing for sure what his novel is about. ("It's like he has two brains!" -- "I wish he brought one with him!")
Nosing about the lovenest are neighbors Helen and Matt (Catherine Overfelt and Robert Wilson Hancock). Helen is always on the alert for strangers visiting cabins abandoned for the off-season, suspecting that criminals could use them as hideouts when they're on the lam. Helen is amusingly colorful and gossipy; Matt is phlegmatic (perhaps to a fault, as played by Wilson).
Surprise! Into this improbable landscape plunges a third party, Brad (Joseph Smith), a petty criminal on the lam, disguised in an orange ski mask. He ties up Dana while he negotiates his way out of the mess he has landed in. Not being a very competent gangster, he doesn't know what to do, even though logic dictates that he kill everyone who has caught sight of his face.
Jason, meanwhile, finishes his novel ahead of schedule (in one weekend!), so the wedding can go on as planned; Brad escapes; and Matt, who happens to be a publisher, takes on the finished work as a children's book, much to Jason's chagrin (he had wanted a Great American Novel).
Less this synopsis appear excessive, let it be said that it hints at the thin characterizations and arbitrary actions that stock the play, which is more a farce than a comedy. Admittedly, Somerville is skilful at getting people in and out of his cabin, an important aspect of farce (though sometimes the story requires that characters not hear cars pulling up outside, a dramaturgical stretch). Still, the story falls flat after Brad escapes, and the other characters have to wrap up the leftovers of the flimsy premise. (They don't explain what Jason and Dana saw in each other in the first place, or why he suddenly gets the idea he could be a novelist.)
The production was staged almost in the round, in a living-room setup. While creating intimacy, this arrangement meant some actors were blocked in some scenes. It's the eternal tradeoff.
The company had great fun with this improbable fiction. Overfelt and Smith were especially engaging as Helen and Brad. Whether more could be made of the play remains to be seen. Perhaps it is destined for TV-land, where petty criminals on the lam are always on the lookout for cabins abandoned in the off-season.
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Copyright 2002 John Chatterton