If three middle-aged flight attendants spending the night with a 17-year-old high school boy in a Chicago hotel room sounds like the setup for a 1960s sex farce à la Boeing-Boeing, think again. Marisa Wegrzyn’s Mud Blue Sky, the latest from The Road Theatre Company, turns out to be not just a laugh-out-loud comedy but a touching look at friendship, parenting, life choices, sisterhood, loneliness, growing older, and coming of age in the 21st Century.
Glamorous Sam (Whitney Dylan) and her more weathered colleague Beth (Carlyle King) have arrived in Chicago for an overnight stopover at an O’Hare-adjacent hotel so low-end it doesn’t have Bravo (and even if it did, you wouldn’t want to touch a remote control still sticky from the previous tenant’s Pay Per View).
Sam has only just shown up in Beth’s second floor room when the ever randy MILF spots a teenage boy in a tuxedo down below in the hotel parking lot and wonders if, this being prom night, he might just be scoring some action later in the evening.
In fact, the “action” Jonathan (Alex Smith) is about to score turns out to be, not with the date who dumped him to spend the rest of the night bar-hopping with friends, but with Beth, or so we discover when the backache-plagued flight attendant goes down to meet her “pot guy” for tonight’s joint.
Having left her cash back up in her hotel room, Beth has no other choice but to invite Jonathan up, soon after which a knock on the door has her sending the young drug dealer scurrying into the bathroom until she can convince Sam she’s not up for a night out on the town.
Not surprisingly, Sam discovers Beth’s subterfuge and before long the threesome are joined by Beth and Sam’s longtime chum Angie (Amy Tolsky), who’s given up stewardessing to care for her elderly mother in nearby La Grange, and arrives armed with a half-bottle of pricey French cognac she’s more than willing to share with her former work buddies (and, it turns out, with Jonathan as well).
Much of Mud Blue Sky’s laugh-packed first hour is spent getting to know its quartet of characters. Beth is making plans for an early retirement package and dreaming of starting her own microbrewery, with aspiring cartoonist Jonathan offering to sketch her a label. Sam is worrying about her own home-alone seventeen-year-old son while lusting after the one she’s got right in front of her. Angie has her own set of problems coping with boredom and an infirm mom. And Jonathan can’t seem to make up his mind between college at Cal Tech or staying at home with his recently widowed father.
Playwright Wegrzyn opts for a more mainstream approach with Mud Blue Sky than with her previous The Butcher Of Baraboo, the Coen Brothers-meet-Beth Henley dark comedy that proved a 2010 hit for The Road, and it pays off to crowd-pleasing effect.
The Chicago-based writer knows about motherhood, knows about teenagers, knows about longtime friendships … and she knows about air hostessing as well. (Any flight attendant in attendance will surely chuckle/shudder as Mud Blue Sky’s characters recall their disgusting lavatory cleanups and the horrors of putting one’s hand in a seat-back pocket.)
Throughout the laughs, Wegrzyn keeps dropping hints that things will darken in Mud Blue Sky’s final half-hour, and darken they do, though not enough to make her play anything close to a downer, just enough to give all four actors the chance to not just strut their comedic chops but to earn a few deserved tears as each digs deep into her or his character’s complexities.
Under Mary Lou Belli’s snappy, nuanced direction, Dylan, King, Smith, and Tolsky deliver a master class in Acting For The Intimate stage, i.e. a mix of the subtleties of film acting and the broader notes required even in a 44-seat theater.
A terrific King lets us see the tenderness lurking under Beth’s gruff surface (and who with Beth’s back troubles wouldn’t have reason to be gruff?)—and the L.A. stage vet can tie a mean bow-tie as well.
As fine an actress as she is gorgeous and leggy, Dylan reveals a woman whose thorny relationship with her “brooding, hunchbacked boy-man” of a son gives party girl Beth added human dimensions.
Doing arguably her richest, most subtle work to date, SoCal 99-seat theater treasure Tolsky is simply wonderful as straight-talking Angie, whom Wegrzyn has gifted with a monolog any actress would give her eyeteeth to play, and which Tolsky nails to poignant perfection.
As for the three ladies’ partner in dramedy, a stellar Smith not only has the tall, lanky frame and intelligent look of a high school math geek, he brings abundant charm, awkwardness, and humor to the role.
Scenic designer Stephen Gifford gives us precisely the cookie-cutter hotel room we’d expect to see Beth crash in for the night, and Derrick McDaniel lights it with both realism and attention to dramatic effect. Sara Ryung Clement’s spot-on costumes range from flight attendant wear to comfortable casual to a James Bond-ready tux. David B. Marling’s sound design convinces us we’re close by one of the country’s busiest airports in addition to supplying multiple additional effects.
Mud Blue Sky is produced by Michelle Gillette, Lorianne Hill, and Jessica Wierzba. Hallie Cooper is assistant director. Tony Carnaghi is stage manager.
Hill, Lisa Rotondi, and Gillette have scheduled understudy performances opposite Smith, who shares the role of Jonathan with Adam Farabee.
Mud Blue Sky is the best kind of crowd-pleaser, the kind where you don’t have to leave your intelligence and heart at the door. I loved it from start to finish.
The Road Theatre, 5108 Lankershim Bl., North Hollywood.
May 10, 2015
Photos: Geoffrey Wade