Divorced couple Grace and Dennis each tell their own version of what went wrong in their marriage in Sorority Queen In A Mobile Home, a midweek offering at Open Fist Theatre. Though its format (extended monologs interspersed with a handful of multiple character scenes) proves a barrier to audience involvement in Grace and Dennis’s stories, performances go a long way towards making Sorority Queen a rather entertaining two-acter.

Act One lets Grace (Amanda Weier) tell her story from her messy stage left mobile home while Dennis (Colin Walker) lounges around his equally disorderly apartment stage right. Act Two turns the tables. Popping by in one or both acts are realtor Judith (Caitlin Renée Campbell), the ex-couple’s best friends Trudy (Rona Nix) and Woody (Tom Burress), and Bradley (Conor Lane), a 20something Boy Scout sporting short shorts.

The Shangri-La Mobile Home Estates is where Grace hangs her hat these days despite Judith’s urgings that she sell her trailer and use the cash to buy a landfill-adjacent house she’s got for sale. Grace has other plans in mind, however, plans which involve doing laundry and ironing for friends in hopes of financing a move to Las Vegas where she intends to fulfill her lifelong dream of becoming a “very famous recording artist” like Patsy Montana. (There’s a big difference between a recording artist and a mere singer, Grace insists.)

We learn about Grace’s earlier life as a popular sorority girl whose moral standards limited her to doing it only with boys whose last names she knew. Grace also describes how she and Dennis met (the fell for each other on a double date with other people) and what prompted their divorce (he lost his job, got depressed, got more depressed, and became an angry drunk).

In the midst of Grace’s act-long monolog, Judith pops by to try once again to get Grace to sell, Bradley requests donations for this year’s Scout-O-Rama, and Trudy works on persuading Grace to give up her Vegas dream.

Act Two is Dennis’ turn to give his side of the story, the side Grace keeps hidden … such as the fact that after paying rent (a full half of his monthly salary) and alimony, he barely has enough money to buy 7-11 pizza and beer, a far cry from what he was eating as a married man. “My wife Grace is a great cook,” Dennis tells us. “I don’t get to eat her food anymore. I just get to pay for it.”

These days, Dennis is working in an auto parts store where he’s forced to wear a blue one-piece uniform that makes him look like a “goddamned Stepford smurf.” His pittance of a salary is a mere fraction of what he was making as a construction worker, a job which fell through as a result of socially inappropriate conduct on the It’s A Small World ride at Disneyland—just the beginning of a very bad day that left him in the hospital, in debt, and jobless.

It may be Dennis’ birthday today, but he’s hardly in the mood to celebrate, even when his best friend (Trudy’s hubby Woody) stops by with a cupcake and a plan for Boys’ Night Out.

Sorority Queen In A Mobile Home (with script by Michael DiGaetano and Kevin Mahoney) would work a lot better if we saw what happened to Grace and Dennis rather than merely heard tell about it. The play picks up every time a visitor stops by and there is human interaction but slows down considerably at other times.

Director Paul Kampf and his cast do their best with the material, particularly the play’s two leads, both of whom do excellent work in roles which require them to engage for long intervals with the audience, no easy task. Weier has never been less than terrific in any of the many roles she’s played at Open Fist. She’s got an innate classiness and intelligence that make Grace seem a social rung above Walker’s Dennis, perhaps not quite how the role might read on paper, but entirely appropriate for someone who was the most popular girl in her sorority and therefore quite a catch for Dennis. Walker so completely transforms himself into blue collar Dennis, handlebar mustache and all, that it comes as a bit of a shock to see the lobby headshot of a trained (and and considerably better-groomed) actor. If Walker is a good deal more buff than Dennis would be after all those pizzas and beers (the role has him shirtless almost throughout), the anger which lies only a bit below Dennis’ surface makes for a compelling performance indeed.

As to which character most engages the audience, it may depend on where you’re sitting. Seated house right, you’ll get Grace looking you in the eye, while those house left will get a man-to-man with Dennis. If I found myself more compelled by Act Two, you can probably guess which side I was on.

Campbell is a hoot as the highly-strung Judith, and Nix and Burruss capture precisely the look and sound of the kind of people you’d likely meet in Bakersfield. Lane makes for an amusing Boy Scout in ‘80s short shorts, but is a curious choice for a role that was originated in New York by a 15-year-old and would seem to call for an authentic teenager.

Scenic designer James Spencer has done a great job of transforming The Good Woman Of Setzuan’s set into two messes of living spaces. Chris Cash’s sound design surrounds Grace and Dennis with the noises you’d expect to hear in a Bakersfield trailer park or low rent apartment. Charles Otte’s lighting design is mostly quite good, but the trick of lowering the lights when a character gets serious, one which has worked well in other productions, for some reason doesn’t here.

I’ve seen better shows at Open Fist. On the other hand, there are plenty of productions around town with only a fraction of Sorority Queen In A Mobile Home’s entertainment value or production standards. The show is worth a look-see if only to catch Weier and Walker’s latest work—which is quite good indeed.

Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
June 30, 2010

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