There may indeed be “no place like home for the holidays,” but there’s surely never been a holiday home quite like the Wemblys’ in Kate Benson’s A Beautiful Day In November On The Banks Of The Greatest Of The Great Lakes, now getting a weird, wacky, wonderful West Coast Premiere at Hollywood’s Theatre Of NOTE.
In less audacious playwriting hands than Benson’s, A Beautiful Day might be nothing more or less than your average once-a-year Thanksgiving family comedy, its four generations of Wemblys assembled in their presumably Wisconsin or Michigan home for turkey and trimmings.
Benson, however, has no intention of playing it either safe or conventional, something she makes abundantly clear from the get-go.
Sparring sportscasters # and @ (Christopher Neiman and Kjai Block, who’ve clearly done their Marv Albert-Jim McCay-Dick Enberg homework) serve as narrators, describing each new meal-prep disaster in football-baseball-golf metaphors. (“And here they come with the deviled eggs, Republican in the lead, Smilesinger right behind and Cheesecake bringing up the rear.”)
Oh, and about those names. Like # and @, siblings-in-law Republican and Smilesinger are far from the only Wemblys with monikers unlikely to be found in any How To Name Your Baby book available on Amazon.
There’s also control-freak hostess Cheesecake (a deliciously dithery Sarah Lilly) and her subservient siblings Cherry Pie (Tegan Ashton Cohan in butch mode) and Trifle (Debbie Jaffe, channeling Nancy Reagan), as well as assorted bit players Runnerman, Trainer, and last-minute arrival, perennial Wembly family bungler Gumbo (Nicole Gabriella Scipione, digging deep).
A Beautiful Day’s seventy-five minutes of virtually non-stop hilarity and mayhem (laughs and disasters going hand in hand) include a last-minute scramble to expand the dining room table to fit unexpected guests, fevered efforts to ensure moist turkey (and gravy just the right shade of brown), and the rehashing of past family fiascos like “The Gravy Boat Episode of 1979.”
Add to this blind grandma SnapDragon (bold and brassy Judith Ann Levitt), whose sense of hearing is so heightened she can hear her sighted daughter ruining the roux (“Whisk harder!”), and deaf GrandDada (John MacKane, a crochety charmer), who fortunately doesn’t to to hear any of the above, and you’ve got a holiday meal you don’t need to be a Midwesterner with extended-family memories to enjoy.
A Beautiful Day’s New York World Premiere setup had actors performing sports-style maneuvers on a gymnasium set, and though Laramie Dennis opts here for a more traditional setting (an actual dining table like something out of Michelangelo’s Last Supper), there is nothing at all standard about the production she has directed for NOTE.
Actors play not to each other but to the audience, and following playwright Benson’s specification that there should be no “replicat[ion of] action being discussed with matching physical action,” there’s not a moment of miming (though we do get to see characters’ facial reactions, as when Cheesecake nearly orgasms on sour cream).
While this approach may not be every theatergoer’s cup of tea, it tasted perfectly fine to me, as did the cast’s ten absolutely splendid performances, including those of the marvelously multi-tasking David Bickford and Rebecca Light, executing a dozen or so bit parts between them including hubbies Fred, Ed, and Ned, and a couple of lesbians if I’m not mistaken, with Neiman and Block doubling delightfully as a couple of in-sync twins.
Scenic designer Morgan Lindsey Price’s dining-room-table set may be basic, but it’s precisely what the director ordered, and lit just right by Karyn Lawrence, who’s got a wow of an eleventh-hour surprise up her sleeve. Sound designer Marc Antonio Pritchett’s cornucopia of effects (and some Who Wants To Be A Millionaire-ready background music) give stage manager Aaron Saldaña plenty to do up in the booth, and Jenny Foldnenauer’s costumes are as quirky as the characters who wear them.
A Beautiful Day In November On The Banks Of The Greatest Of The Great Lakes is produced for NOTE by Sierra Marcks, Kathleen O’Grady, and Natalie Beisner. Chantelle Albers, Beisner, Alex Elliott-Funk, Pritchett, Andrea Ruth, Julia Silverman, and Cliff Weissman make up A Beautiful Day’s alternate cast.
November and December’s upcoming abundance of Christmas-themed plays is nothing out of the ordinary for this time of year. A Beautiful Day In November On The Banks Of The Greatest Of The Great Lakes most definitely is, and L.A. theatergoers can give thanks for that.
Theatre of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga, Hollywood.
November 10, 2016
Photos: Troy Blendell