Too Rustic! aims to put a new spin on the age old question of what happens when country folk and city folk clash. While the new play with music at the Chelsea Playhouse tries very hard, not only does it not provide answers, it makes you stop caring about the question.
The setup of Gregory Steinbruner's book suggests rife, if not entirely original, comic potential: Big Pappy (John McDonough) and his two hired hands, Arlo and Billy (Ian Tabatchnick and Matthew Gray), take a trip into the big city to make a bank deposit and sell three jugs of their homemade moonshine. Unprepared for the city and its unusual denizens, however, they find themselves taken advantage of, their spirits broken, and their souls almost conquered.
Along the way, though, they meet up with their fair share of crazy characters. A hippie haberdasher, a W.C. Fields-like hotel doorman, and a Groucho Marx-like judge are all played by the versatile and talented Mace Perlman, while the two call girls who take a liking to Arlo and Billy are portrayed with sultry comic grace by Danielle Ferland and Emily Gray. Meanwhile, Big Pappy, trying to buy a dress and hat for his beloved, Li'l Daisy Sunshine (Eve Hartmann), must put up with uncooperative bank tellers, high restaurant prices, and more.
The problem with Too Rustic! is that none of these pieces ever really amount to anything. The caricatures are so plentiful and the tired, familiar jokes so abundant, it frequently seems as if they were thrown in expressly the hope that, if there were enough, the play would make the audience forget it wasn't funny. That never happens here; despite scene after anachronistic scene dedicated to this purpose, the humor always seems strained almost to the breaking point, with true laughs few and far between.
What fairs far better is the show's music, composed and arranged by Bob Green. It has a down-home country flavor that contributes far more to the show than the book. From the first number which sets the scene, "Down in the Holler" to the final ode to everyone's favorite drink "Moonshine," the music never fails to elevate Too Rustic! to its highest points.
Steinbruner's direction is better than his book, and does manage to generally the capture the country flavor he's going for, with the help of Courtney Logan's costumes, S. Ryan Schmidt's lighting, David Markowiz's quickly adaptable set designs, and Ariane Anthony's choreography. Each of the performers makes contributions - especially Tabatchnick and Gray in their roles throughout and Ferland in her "One Meatball" solo near the end and, with the help of Emily Gray, as the mule Bessie throughout - but are never likable enough to overcome the dullness of the script.
By the time their trek into the big city is done, Big Pappy, Arlo, and Billy are glad to be home again, and with good reason - home is one place you never want to be away from for too long a period of time. At the very least, that is one point that Too Rustic! - if perhaps unintentionally - drives home all too clearly.
Fifth Street Theater