Theater review: The Groundling at Asheville Community Theatre
Bruce Steele: Let’s get one thing out of the way right away as we discuss Asheville Community Theatre’s North Carolina premiere of the comedy The Groundling: The title refers to the poorer audience members in Shakespeare’s day who stood on the ground in front of the stage. In this play, the groundling is Bob Malone, who stumbled upon a zero-budget production of Love’s Labours Lost in a New York City park and was inspired to write his own play. Indeed, Shakespeare plays a major role in “The Groundling.” As someone not familiar with Love’s Labours, I felt like I was missing some of what New York playwright Mark Palmieri was trying to get across. Did you ever feel a bit Lost?
Edwin Arnaudin: Though I’m likewise unfamiliar with that work, I wasn’t lost, but I was surprised by the brevity of the journey. The five-scene play has no intermission and there’s a huge reveal at the end that seems worthy of greater exploration. Yet suddenly the cast is standing together, taking bows. It left me wanting more — a shortcoming of the material, not the actors or the crew.
Bruce: I don’t disagree. There’s a lot of setup for a short play, so there's a lot left unexplored. Bob (Daniel Sandoval) has hired a down-on-their-luck director, Dodd (Scott Keel), and actress, Victoria (Mandy Bean) to work on his play in Bob’s Long Island garage. Bob’s marriage to Karen (Jenni Robinson) is on the rocks, and his play, written in Seussian rhymes (as one character puts it) is intended to bring resolution. The play, of which we see surprisingly little, recounts Bob’s early courting of Karen. It’s a difficult premise even to explain, and Palmieri doesn’t advance the story much beyond his premise until the abrupt ending. Everyone at ACT says they couldn’t stop laughing when reading and rehearsing. Did you think the opening night audience was equally entertained?
Edwin: I think they were generally amused, but the script gives off a vibe that it wants to be viewed as hilarious and it’s too messy to live up to that goal. The inanity of an amateur play being staged in a garage with help from struggling professionals is a solid setup and yields a lot of laughs, especially early on, but it’s subsequently plagued by structural issues and a half-formed melding of comedy and drama. As siblings Ally (Kelsey Simmons) and Pete (Haven Volpe) join rehearsals and the action moves away from those practice sessions, the yuks decrease and are replaced by attempts at character development that are just starting to gel when the play ends.
Bruce: I also think there’s a gap between the theater people who picked and produced this play and the average audience member. The repeated nods to Shakespeare, the messiness of rehearsals, the herculean efforts of an overtaxed director — all this material is going to reach into the hearts of theater people, while we groundlings might feel a little left out. It’s all kind of funny, but since we haven’t lived through it, it doesn’t generate quite the hilarity it might with a theater crowd.
Edwin: That could be, though I went for many of the meta aspects and found them generally accessible. I was often reminded of Waiting for Guffman, but I feel like I know what motivates Christopher Guest’s players in that film, and most of the characters here just feel partially sketched, as if Palmieri forgot a stack of his pages at Kinko's. Despite these inherent limitations, I think the cast does an admirable job with the material. Who stood out to you?
Bruce: Keel is terrific as the director, perhaps in part because he IS a director, as well as the former artistic director of Montford Park Players. His blend of frazzled concern and determination is palpable, and he grounds the play, so to speak, and makes its oddball premise seems credible. And has good rapport with Bean, who also has some directing in her resume.
Edwin: He definitely gets that specific type of pretentious, self-absorbed artist right, and both he and Bean are great at getting across the frustration of creatively slumming it while acknowledging they don’t have better options. But I was just as taken with Sandoval, whose Bob is pretty irresistible in his well-intentioned theatrical pursuits. The native Long Islander is a natural fit for his everyman counterpart.
Bruce: Sandoval is comfortably awkward as Bob, and you can really feel his desperation. Robinson is more mannered as his wife Karen, her face often distorted with Karen’s uncontrolled anger. I was happy to see her one-on-one scene with Bean, because it finally let her play Karen as more of a sad woman as less of a twitchy shrew. And as the third woman in the cast, Simmons makes her underwritten character completely believable.
Edwin: Simmons is a lot of fun as a hopeful Hoftstra transfer, though several lines of dialogue get lost in her occasionally under-projected accent work. Volpe, whom I thoroughly enjoyed as a co-lead in MPP’s recent The Importance of Being Earnest, inspires laughs through Pete’s unrefined readings of Bob’s already awkward couplets, but his love for Phantom of the Opera is pretty much his lone memorable trait. The same goes for Ralph Redpath, ACT’s former managing director, as Karen’s live-in father, whose poor hearing proves a comical yet inconsistent detail. Director Betsy Puckett gets the most out of her seven performers, but they all deserve better material.
Bruce: So the question becomes, what did Asheville Community Theatre get out of producing this relatively unknown show? I admire their bravery for deviating from the standard community theater regimen of classics, and I hope they might be sought out by up-and-coming playwrights in the future. Palmieri, certainly, should be happy with the work put into his play — not just by cast and director but also by Bjorn Goller, whose realistic set design fits the bill, with nice garage-sale-bound props by Connor Harmsworth; Carina Lopez, in charge of the "what I threw on this morning" costumes; and Adam Cohen, whose lighting varies from intentionally harsh (it IS a garage) to thoughtfully focused. Even if this show wasn’t as funny to us as it was to the production team, it was worth the effort to challenge everyone involved, including audiences. My hope for another new show is that it might feel less claustrophobic — not just because of we're trapped in a very real garage, but because of its “inside baseball” quality for theater people — and provide some more richly imagined character arcs.
Edwin: Those are fair requests. It would indeed be terrific if The Groundling serves as a stepping stone to attract more new and exciting voices to ACT’s stage. Its selection is a clear sign that the production team is willing to take chances, and I’ll be curious to see how audiences respond over the next two weekends. Whether or not it’s a hit, I suspect it will lead to better shows in the near future.
The Groundling runs Aug. 17-Sept. 2, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. For tickets, visit ashevilletheatre.org
(Photos: Studio Misha Photography)