Don Cummings’ darkly funny A Good Smoke could just as easily be titled Life
With The Mother From Hell, but that might just be the teensiest bit off-putting. 
After all, how many of us would choose to spend an hour and a half with one
of the most unrelentingly angry women ever put on a stage? But rest assured,
on opening night the Chandler Theatre was filled with uproarious laughter,
and I was among those who laughed the loudest. Black as the comedy in as
A Good Smoke is, this is a very funny comedy indeed.

At lights up, we meet Dave and Joe, brothers whose chronically ill mother has
impulsively gone off her meds (cold turkey) and suffered the consequences. 
Dave has flown in from the West Coast, but remains unconvinced of his mom’s
ill health.  After all, Mom says she’d die without her pain pills, but her disease
keeps changing every six months depending on what she reads in the New
England Journal of Medicine. Younger brother Joe wants to put Mom into an
expensive ($6000/month) facility.  “We could pay for it,” he maintains, though
just who “we” is and how they could foot the bill is anyone’s guess. Dave can’t
understand why Joe is still tied to his mother’s apron strings, plus there’s the
suspicious coincidence that Mom “pulled this stunt the same day our sister has
a baby.  Her first grandchild, and off to the loony bin.”  

We soon meet Mom, and not only does she take pill after pill, she is one.  She
claims to be suffering from an autoimmune syndrome, with morphine the only
way to ease the constant pain, but is pain reason enough for the non-stop
rage/rants/vitriol that spews from her cigarette-damaged rasping growl of a
voice? “I’m sick. I’m in pain. I’ll never get better,” she fumes, and in the next
breath barks, “I have it under control!” 

That the last remark gets a huge laugh is proof that in A Good Smoke, much of
the humor is in the performance of lines that, in and of themselves, seem to be
unlikely laugh-getters.  Cummings’ script is so devilishly clever that it doesn’t
need “jokes,” though lines like “Don’t look at me in that tone of voice,” are
indeed funny.  So is this exchange:
     Joe: Dave doesn’t hate you Mom. He’s just angry.
     Mom: (screeching as usual) He has nothing to be angry about!!!

Meanwhile at the hospital, sibling #3 (and new mom) Susan is worried to
death that her newborn daughter is never going to start feeding. “Some
children don’t thrive, and they die,” she moans, and in the next breath, says of
the lactation specialist who came by to advise her, “She practically pulled a
ukulele out of her ass and tried to sing the baby to eat.” Another huge laugh-
getter, just when you thought things were getting a bit too grim.

A running gag is that the entire family is made up of smokers who can’t seem
to find a lighter that works.  (Even ex-smoker Dave picks up the habit again
when he gets back home.) Audience members sensitive to smoke need not
fret, however. Only in the final moments of the play is there actual smoking
done, for a very funny fade to black.

Under Cummings’ skillful direction, Barbara Gruen (Mom) gives one of the most
furious, fearless, and physically fatiguing performances I’ve ever witnessed.  
Seething with constant anger, Gruen never once gives in to the temptation
to soften Mom, making her all the funnier, in a perversely satisfying way. And
what a trip Mom is. Though her children are now too big to hit, when they
were kids, she’d smack them, then cry and get hysterical, and in the end   
they’d be the ones to console her. Now, to the audience’s incredulous
laughter, she exclaims, “I was overprotective! I should have been tougher on
you!”  And in almost the next breath: “I’m so lucky I have such handsome
sons.  I’m the luckiest woman alive!”  (Didn’t I tell you Mom was a pill?)     
Gruen’s is a must-be-seen performance, never more so than in the 10-minute
phone rant she delivers full force, her words getting steadily louder and faster
and crazier. You sit there listening, mouth agape, and laughing as you cringe,
half of you wanting for her to just shut up, and the other half waiting to see
what will pop out of her mouth next. (Here’s another one, about her
childhood: “I was beaten again and again! My mother would throw me in
closets!”  Reads tragic, plays funny as hell!)

Henry Gummer (Dave) follows his winning performance in Journey To
Dollywood with yet another winner. Gummer’s likeable persona works to make
Dave the most sympathetic character, and once again those “sad but
sparkling eyes” speak volumes. Blake Anthony does deliciously deadpan work
as Joe, and Dennis Delsing is a hoot as Dad (and plays “funny drunk” just about
as well as I’ve ever seen it done).  Madelynn Fattibene, who has done much
fine work with West Coast Ensemble, is outstanding at showing the
unremittingly hangdog Susan’s real pain and suffering. Finally, Mary McBride
appears all too briefly as Susan’s mother-in-law Betty, as relentlessly cheerful as
Susan is morose.

Cummings, who also penned the very funny The Fat Of The Land, clearly
understands the fine line between comedy and tragedy, and A Good Smoke
walks that line to often side-splitting results. There’s little real plot; we simply
spend time with these people, get to know them a bit. The character of Mom
does get to be a bit much at times (fortunately this is not a two-act play) and
at the end, one wonders what lessons, if any, the family members have learned
from what they’ve been through, but still, this is a play worth seeing, and one
which will certainly provoke much post-curtain discussion.

August Viverito’s set and lighting design make excellent use of The Chandler
Theatre’s long, narrow space, with lighting and sound (designed by Bob
Blackburn) allowing for quick set changes, from living room, to hospital room, to
bar. Zoe Buck’s costumes are also very good.

Though sometimes Mom (and therefore A Good Smoke) gets to be a bit too
much, it nonetheless represents yet another deserved success for Vivirito and  
T L Kolman’s The Production Company. An amazing four (count’em)
productions already staged since the September opening of Spring
Awakening with yet another on the way in April.  Though not an all-out
triumph like the recently closed Wit, A Good Smoke is nonetheless “smoking-
good” fun. Who would have thought that spending an hour and a half with
“the mother from hell” would prove so entertaining?

The Chandler Studio Theatre Center, 12443 Chandler Boulevard, North

–Steven Stanley
February 22, 2008

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