It is perhaps appropriate that Say What?!, at the Pantheon Theatre Mainstage, is billed as "Ten Comedic Pieces of Miscommunication." Though each of the ten plays revolves around the same basic subject matter, so do most of them also succeed at miscommunicating their intentions to the audience.
The authors of the ten plays - Michael Camenisch, John DeVore, Marcalan Glassberg, Terry Roueche, and Teresa Sullivan - try very hard to make the plays both comic and relevant. Though they frequently succeed at the former to varying degrees, the latter is more elusive; too often the authors try too hard with unsatisfying dramatic results. Most of the plays seem more appropriate for television sketch comedy than the theatre stage, and a number of them fail in many of the same ways bad skits on such television shows do.
The evening's first offering, Glassberg's "Love in Four Songs," is an interesting idea, examining relationships in what seems to be the 1970s and the 2000s simultaneously, but lacks the focus to make its point about the beginnings and ends of relationships very clear. Camenisch's "Hungry," likewise, is filled with strained and mostly unfunny double entendres ensuing when a man and a woman are both attracted to the same waiter. "Tryouts," also by Camenisch, is similarly forced, with two mothers discussing the outrageous lengths to which they are willing to go to make their daughters the perfect cheerleaders.
A couple of the plays do slightly better. DeVore's "Face Time," about a man's coming out of an interesting closet, is silly, but fairly insightful. Camenisch's "Table Talk," deals with a family's complete inability to comprehend anything even slightly meaningful, probably making the strongest real statement of any of the plays in the show, while still providing effective comedy. "Line-Up," also by Camenisch is mostly slight, but quite funny.
The evening's highlight is Camenisch's "Phones," in which one woman (gleefully played by Amy Ellenberger), a receptionist at a law firm with an unfathomable name, must battle prank callers, an annoyed partner, and sheer boredom in order to just make it through the day. The story's simplicity, honesty, believability, and Ellenberger's zany comic performance give it the zest so many of the other plays lack.
For the most part, the other performers do decent, if unremarkable, work. Mitch Poulos's direction varies from focused and comically inventive in "Phones" and "Table Talk" to questionable in "Hungry" or Roueche's "Coming of Age," with voiceovers too distracting to focus on the more interesting dialogue. Mark Hankla (who also appears in the show) has designed an adaptable unit set that allows Poulos to make transitions between the plays swift and efficient, though the pacing within the plays themselves often leaves quite a bit to be desired.
Though it suffers from problems, Say What?! is quite entertaining when it works, even if it seldom approaches the more profound and meaningful levels to which it aspires. During the show's less successful moments, of which there are unfortunately too many, you may find yourself remembering the title of the show far too easily.
Photo: L to R Top Row Teresa Cornish, Jason Grutter, Eric Conley, Dina Drew, Mark Hankla, Maitely Weismann, Michael Whitney, Traci Hovel, Dana Varon, Daniel Martin, Suzanne Hayes Bottom Row Sherikay Perry, Bonnie Marsh, Amy Ellenberger, Jennifer Lorch, Shari Sklar
Photo by Frank Blake