Theatergoers in search of laughter with a dollop of romance added for good measure need look no farther than Squabbles, currently lighting up the stage at the Palos Verdes-adjacent Norris Center For The Performing Arts.

Squabbles, by Marshall Karp, began its life in 1982 at a dinner theater in Kansas City, Missouri as a vehicle for then 81-year-old Lyle Talbot, a beloved movie and TV fixture from 1931’s The Clyde Mystery to a 1987 episode of Newhart. Though perhaps not of Broadway caliber, Karp’s two-act easily has as many laughs as a Neil Simon, a cast of characters that borrows somewhat from All In The Family, and an almost unheard of love story between two over-60s, making it an ideal choice for the Norris’ subscription base.

The absolutely marvelous Alan Blumenfeld assumes the Talbot role here, that of 72-year-old retired New York cabbie Abe Dreyfus, recently recovered from a heart attack (which he insists was nothing more than gas) and staying indefinitely at the home of lawyer daughter Alice (Andrea Frankle) and her husband Jerry (James W. Gruessing Jr.), a TV jingle writer.  Only marginally less prejudiced than Archie Bunker, Abe is wont to say things like “A Chinaman specializes in laundry, in take-out food, in little radios.  A Chinaman does not specialize in hearts.” He also believes that “an argument a day keeps the doctor away.”  In fact, he maintains that the only reason his wife of 48 years died is that for two weeks after she got sick, “I made the mistake of being nice to her … and poof, she drops dead.”  As might be expected there is much squabbling in Squabbles.

The catalyst for said squabbles is the fire that burns down Jerry’s mother’s house.  (Well, technically, “it started on the ground.  It burned up to the roof.”) Having nowhere to stay, Mildred (Sandra Tucker) hops on a plane and sooner than you can say “full house,” arrives at Alice and Jerry’s doorstep.  Since the young couple has just learned that Alice is expecting her first baby, Abe has already agreed (albeit unwillingly) to move into the smaller guest room so that the second bedroom can be turned into a nursery. Now that Alice’s mother is in the house, that leaves either Abe or Mildred without a room to sleep in, and neither is about to move into the nearby furnished one-bedroom apartment that Alice and Jerry have just rented.

Add to the mix a Puerto Rican handyman (Danny Bolero) who spends almost as much time in the Sloans’ bathroom as he does fixing things, a next-door neighbor (Allan Lynch) who makes the best coffee on the block, and a grouchy governess (Sandra Kinder) whose motto must be “Let a scowl be your umbrella” … and the stage is set for mucho conflict … and muchos one-liners.

Director Todd Nielsen has proved himself time and time again a master of the comedic, and here he makes sure that not a laugh line is wasted. Better still, he insures that his cast play real, three-dimensional characters, making the Norris production even better on stage than it reads in print.

Blumenfeld could not be finer or funnier as the cantankerous Abe, and when the wonderful Tucker arrives on the scene as the equally strong-headed Mildred, sparks fly and what ignites is a refreshing, and refreshingly believable romance between characters whose age makes them in contemporary TV, movies, and theater more often than not the butt of condescending jokes. Not here, however, and last night’s audience of mostly retirees could not help but appreciate seeing themselves portrayed on stage in such a real and respectful manner.

A charming (and svelte) Gruessing (the Norris’ Producer/Artistic Director) proves himself a comic actor of the first order, and one looks forward to seeing him in more straight plays in addition to the musicals that are his specialty.  Gruessing has great chemistry with the lovely and talented young regional theater vet Frankle, making the first of what one hopes will be numerous Los Angeles area appearances. 

Bolero has such fun playing handyman Hector that the Latino stereotype becomes unoffensive, longtime character actor Lynch makes the most of his scenes as Abe’s ingratiating gin rummy partner Sol, and Kinder is a great grump of a nanny.

Gruessing has designed an absolutely gorgeous suburban home for the Sloans and Christina L. Munich’s lighting is excellent (though too bright for one scene supposedly taking place in the dark).  Diana Mann’s costumes are perfect fits for the play’s cast of character, though I’m not sure a shocking pink and brown maternity outfit is the best color palette for gorgeous redhead Frankle. 

A few other very minor quibbles. The present day setting (“within the last few years”) turns the $6/hour Abe pays Hector into virtual slave labor (can we make it $12 or $15 in 21st Century currency?) and a cordless phone does not work in a blackout.  (They only had corded phones in 1982.)

Other than that, Squabbles is about as laugh-filled a two hours as you’re likely to find on stage these days, and given such a classy production, is certain to delight Norris subscribers and Angelinos in search of a night of escapist laughs.  It’s an all around delight.

Norris Center For The Performing Arts, 27570 Crossfield Drive, Rolling Hills Estates. 

–Steven Stanley
January 30, 2009

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