What happens when you take an obscure direct-to-video movie from the ‘90s, adapt it as a stage comedy, edit it down from 86 minutes to a little over an hour, give it a new title and World Premiere it at Hollywood’s Theatre 68? The answer is 86’d, an enjoyable albeit slight (and very short) comedy that has quite a bit going for it … and against it as well.

 The press release for 86’d quotes directly from the imdb summary of 1996’s Just Your Luck, so I will too: “Six million dollars suddenly goes up for grabs when an aged diner’s heart fails after he discovers that he has won the lottery. Which of the remaining late-night dining regulars will get the cash? How many will have to die to get the answer?”

The movie had quite a cast, including Sean Patrick Flanery, Virginia Madsen, Carroll Baker, and Ernie Hudson, along with Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn, whose star-making Swingers received a considerably flashier theatrical run the same year as Just Your Luck debuted on VHS.  Just Your Luck also starred Jon Polito, who along with Darryl Armbruster has adapted Todd Alcott and Gary Auerbach’s screenplay as the single-set stage play 86’d.

Though 86’d’s Lucan Melkonian, Julianna Bolles, Susan Fisher, Michael Edward Thomas, Matt McVay, George Kolombos, and Lou Volpe aren’t as well known as their abovementioned small-screen predecessors, they are all of them talented L.A.-based actors, as are their castmates Bill Doherty Jr., Ed Dyer, Alan Erlich, Jamie Kerezsi, and Mark Vazquez, who bring to life (and in some cases death) the following characters:

Nick (Volpe), Greek owner/cook of the low-end diner in which 86’d unfolds (in approximately the year 1986); Kim (Bolles) and Ray (Melkonian), a pair of snappily-dressed young lawyers out on a date; Willy (Thomas), an African-American baker who’s married with kids; Carl (Dyer), a loudmouthed cop into racial stereotyping, though he assures Willy it’s nothing personal; Barry (Kolombos), Carl’s handsome younger partner, who’s got a thing for Angela (Kerezsi), the diner’s 20-year-old college girl waitress; Straker (McVay), deep in debt to loansharks who send goons Edge (Vazquez) and Johnny (Doherty) to the diner to collect; Mamie (Fisher), an older, apparently schizophrenic coffee enthusiast with a possible case of Tourette’s; Old Man (Ehrlich), the old man whose sudden demise sets the plot in motion; and Johnny (Doherty), whose reason for being in the diner I neglected to jot down.

Once cops Carl and Barry have exited, take-out in hand, it doesn’t take long for the elderly stutterer known only as Old Man to get shown today’s “p-p-p-paper,” check the day’s numbers, realize that his lucky digits 902738 have won him $6 million, and promptly keel over from an apparent heart attack.

Lawyer Ray is interested only in knowing if the dying Old Man wants to take legal action. Diner owner Nick is naturally none too keen on the idea of calling the cops. Kim wants them all to use their brains and check the number before they call 911, assuring her fellow customers that she’s not “stealing” the ticket. (“I prefer the term ‘appropriation,’” she tells them.) Willie doesn’t want to hear any crazy ideas about splitting the money, his $10-an-hour job being enough for to support his wife and kids. A blissfully unaware Mamie seems to have no idea what’s going on.

Then Straker pulls a gun.

At the risk of giving too much away, I will reveal that, before long, there won’t be just a single body to dispose of, a few characters will exit (and possibly re-enter), Edge and Johnny will pop by at least once, and Ray will take off his shirt, leaving the handsome young lawyer bare from the waist up for no other apparent reason than that to give audience members ample time to admire Melkonian’s sculpted, underwear model-perfect torso.

Director Ronnie Marmo elicits vibrant performances from his all-around first-rate cast (though I couldn’t help wishing that Thomas, Volpe, and assorted others had “stage shouted,” the better to keep the noise level at a less earsplitting number of decibels whenever tempers flared). Polito and Armbruster have written an entertaining, often unpredictable script which had this reviewer laughing quite often, though I was often the only one at the performance reviewed. (Despite the mostly dead silence that surrounded me, the cast received enthusiastic applause and cheers at curtain calls, one of the more curious phenomena of live theater, as any actor can tell you from experience.)

Also on the plus side, stunt coordinator Jamison Jones has staged an exciting, realistic fight sequence, among other bits of stage action. Scenic design whiz Danny Cistone has created a terrific, meticulously detailed diner set, including vintage jukebox and a chalkboard menu with 1980s prices. Matt Richter lights Cistone’s set with accustomed expertise. The production’s excellent unbilled sound design features era-establishing hit songs like Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors,” Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” and an amusingly used Europe’s “The Final Countdown.” Costumes are also uncredited, but do much to establish the play’s time period, as does Kerezsi’s side ponytail.

As for Polito and Armbruster’s script, I really liked its “what if” aspects, asking myself how I would react at the opportunity to pocket a share of a $6 million dollar jackpot ($12 million in today’s currency). And like those classic heist movies, 86’d had me rooting for its cast of would-be criminals to pull it off.

On the minus side, an approximate 65-minute running time is rather short for “an evening of theater.” I couldn’t help wondering what got cut from the movie and wishing that the adapters had developed certain characters and sequences that don’t meet their comic potential in the script’s current form, this being one case where the pace may have been a tad too breakneck. Also, a number of the performers seemed to be trying too hard for laughs, rather than playing the scene “straight” and just letting the laughter happen. Finally, I must confess to not being a fan of curtain calls in which cast members immediately burst into self-congratulatory applause.

Among the production’s behind-the-scenes talents are producer Marmo, assistant director Heidi Rhodes, managing director Katy Jacoby, and stage manager Sigrid Owen.

I enjoyed 86’d despite its imperfections, most of which are entirely fixable in this or future runs. Though Polito and Armbruster’s script does know how not to outstay its welcome, an hour and change seems short to accomplish all it sets out to do. Flesh out script and characters a bit, take down some of the performances a tad, and keep Melkonian shirtless throughout, and I’d give 86’d an unqualified rave.

Theatre 68, 5419 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite D. Hollywood.



–Steven Stanley
November 25, 2012
Photo: Matt McVay

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