Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Hear the Grass Grow at B Street

(Left to Right: David Pierini, Ed Claudio, Deborah O'Brien, Elisabeth Nunziato)

Following tradition The B Street Theatre of Sacramento presents us with a holiday gift, the world premiere of a new show. And as far back as I recall, the show is always written by Buck Busfield, the theater’s producing artistic director. This year his gift is “Hear the Grass Grow,” which he also directs.

Busfield has a natural talent for comedy, and as we watched the first act, we felt a chill of recognition—we could well be seeing a perennial comedy classic. We wondered which of the marvelous actors we saw might reprise their roles in a preordained movie. But the second act, though successful, did not quite live up to the first.

The plot revolves around the campaign for Indiana governor by Ernie Putalik (David Pierini), a small-town mayor. A fresh and hilarious scene introduces Ernie and his friends, a goofy would-be comedian, Reed Shelley (Jeff Asch), who specializes in playing a monkey, prancing around and pouring a drink on his head, much to the delight of his effusive wife, Toots (Stephanie McVay), who eggs him on.

Also in the scene, serving cocktails, is Ernie’s lovely and warm-hearted wife, Peggity (Deborah O’Brien). The only one not responding is Ernie. In one of the show’s finest bits of acting, he does almost nothing. With a faint smile and a woebegone expression in his eyes he foreshadows a catastrophe to come.

Soon to arrive is Bud Baggitt (Ed Claudio), Ernie’s campaign manager, proudly introducing Morgan Krinnick (Elisabeth Nunziato), a tough political advisor who despises everyone in Indiana, barking commands at Ernie like a Marine drill sergeant firing a machine gun.

While on the stage she sucks in our attention along with all the oxygen in the theater. A longtime B Street veteran, Nunziato usually plays straight roles but here reveals a remarkable aptitude for comedy. Some of it has to do with her hairdo, giving her a slight resemblance to Sarah Pallin, though Morgan’s personality is exactly the opposite. When I asked if the resemblance was intentional, Busfield demurred, saying he’d tried to avoid the association.

The first act ends with a messenger bringing bad news, left unexplained, that changes the tenor of the second act. A deeply depressed Ernie lies disconsolate on his sofa, ignoring all entreaties to get on with his campaign. He drives away his friends and manager until, in despair, Peggity can no longer endure his pain and departs temporarily.

Mixing pathos with laughter is like squirting mustard on an ice cream cone. Busfield wisely keeps us in the dark about what tortures Ernie, who simply lies inert, ignoring a persistent telephone with messages from the press. (The title of the play, taken from a poem by George Eliot, alludes to the pain that comes with human consciousness.)

But there are still funny moments. We cheer him on when he wrests control of the phone from a telephone company flack trying to sell him additional services. And we exult, having gone through a season of robo calls and surveys, as he says that sooner or later the agent will die, so why does he waste his life chasing money?

And there are charming moments. In the first act Ernie chased squirrels off his roof with golf balls, but in the second he shoots at them with a rifle. Responding to a noise at the door, he finds a cardboard carton with a wounded squirrel in it. He begins to regain his humanity when he nurses the squirrel back to health and adopts its family. In the end…well, I won’t give it away.

Along with the superb cast we have new music, especially composed by Noah Arguss for this play. And though the second act may be a bit of a downer, it’s never dull. For this production Busfield gave up theater in the round, and Ron Madonia covered the back wall with a set capturing the Putalik living room.

“Hear the Grass Grow” continues through January 4 at 2711 B Street, behind the Stanford Park Baseball Field. Performances are Tuesday at 6:30 p.m., Wednesday at 2 and 6:30 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 5 and 9 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $22 to $30, with student and senior discounts available. Call (916) 443-5300.

Because of adult language and content, the show is recommended for ages 16 and up.

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