Every so often one comes across a little-known play that turns out to be a true theatrical gem.  Squabbles, by Marshall Karp, is one such comedic treat, and Los Angeles audiences can find out exactly why in a terrific new production now playing at Glendale Centre Theatre.

Squabbles 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. 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 retirees, making it an ideal choice for GCT’s subscription base.

A hilarious Mario DiGregorio assumes the Talbot role here, that of 70-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 (Rebecca Lucas) and her husband Jerry (David Chatfield), 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 (Stephanie Jones) 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 Japanese handyman (Jion Hikui) who spends almost as much time in the Sloans’ bathroom as he does fixing things, a next-door neighbor (Don Woodruff) who makes the best coffee on the block, and a imperious governess (Connie Nelson) whose motto must be “Keep your hands off the baby” … and the stage is set for conflict and one-liners galore.

DiGregorio wears a second hat as director (as N. Mario DiGregorio) and his umpteen appearances in GCT productions makes him a great choice to helm the in-the-round staging, making full use of Tim Dietlein’s excellent living room set and insuring that no one in the audience gets shortchanged.  As with other GCT straight plays, theater in-the-round places the audience right there in Jerry’s living room with his cantankerous father-in-law and assorted friends and family, and given the caliber of performances delivered by the terrific cast, surrounds the players with almost constant laughter.

Some initial line fumbling by DiGregorio led me to worry that he might have bitten off a bit too much in both directing and starring in Squabbles, but the veteran actor soon hit his stride, managing to make Abe strangely loveable despite his unrepentant cantankerousness.  If DiGregorio gets the lion share of laughs, it is by never overplaying, by just sort of throwing out all those insults and punch lines. It’s a technique that works, and Squabbles is all the funnier for it.

As was true in last year’s Barefoot In The Park, Jones is once again blessed with the kind of role over-40 actresses so rarely get, that of a still vital, sexy woman, or at least so she turns out to be once the flames of romance are fanned. Jones is an absolute delight as Mildred, giving Abe back every bit as good as she gets, and the romantic sparks that ignite between them are a joy to behold.  

Chatfield makes for a very good straight man, skillfully setting up DiGregorio for laughs, all the while making this put-upon son-in-law a believable, sympathetic character. Lucas is a terrific young leading lady/comedienne who gives a vibrant, winning performance as Alice, hopefully the first of many at GCT. Woodruff and Nelson make the very most of their brief scenes to great comic effect.  Finally, Hikui steals scenes right and left as Hisato, his antics so hilarious (going so far as to offer a cracker to a stageside audience member) that a tendency to ham it up a tad too much is easily forgiven.

Costumes by Lisa Fullerton and Glendale costumes are effective choices as are the production’s uncredited lighting and sound design.

I do wish that the time frame were a bit more clearly defined. The $6/hour Abe pays Hisato would indicate we’re still in the early 1980s as does the lack of cell phone technology in Karp’s script, however the Sloan family’s cordless phone was (at the very least) uncommon until some years later. The problem with the wage?  It’s slave labor if we’re in a contemporary setting.  The problem with the phone? Anyone who’s ever been in a blackout knows that cordless phones are useless in a power outage. The simple solution? Give Hisato a raise (say to $12 or $15 an hour) and substitute a corded phone for the one currently used.

Squabbles’ obscurity as a play may well be its best selling point. Unlike the Neil Simon oeuvre, this is a comedy that few if any in the audience will have seen before.  The resulting laughs are thus likely to be all the louder and more plentiful for being from an unexpected source. If laughter is indeed the best medicine, Glendale Centre Theatre audiences will be in tip-top health throughout Squabbles’ one-month run.

Glendale Centre Theatre, 324 N. Orange St., Glendale. 

–Steven Stanley
April 14, 2010

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