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Pump Boys and Dinettes

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Diner food might be fine, but who wants to eat it all the time? Even if you crave your food hot and fast, you also might want something healthier and more varied. In terms of temperature and speed, not much beats Pump Boys and Dinettes. But when it comes to nutrition and variety, this is one show that leaves you mighty hungry.

So, as with not-bad-but-not-good diners, you come to rely on the service. The new Ground Up Productions revival of the show, at Manhattan Theatre Source, is thus as chaotic as your personal favorite dive at lunchtime: Things move at lightning-fast speeds, but little is cooked all the way through.

Perhaps when the show first made the New York rounds 25 years ago, starting in cabaret and gradually moving to Broadway, things were different. Then, the proprietors of the show's roadside eatery, the Double Cupp Diner, were Cass Morgan and Debra Monk, each of whom has since gone on to bigger and better things (and were both on the boards this season). It's certainly possible that their charisma, as well as that of their costars and coauthors (Jim Wann, John Foley, Mark Hardwick, and John Schimmel), made this singed waffle of a show into a tantalizing dessert.

Unfortunately, the troupe that director Laura Standley has assembled here has no such luck. Both the Rhetta and Prudie Cupp (Amy Heidt and Kate Middleton), as well as the Pump Boys who work the adjoining gas station (Franklin Golden, Michael Hicks, Zeb Holt, and Mitch Rothrock), meet the show's modest singing, instrument-playing, and acting requirements (the latter are especially modest). But no one lights up the stage in a way that allows you to escape the show's genial, but unavoidable, hokeyness.

That's a major deficit in a show that offers little more than songs that run the gamut from country-rock to country-and-western, with an occasional stop at rockabilly. There are a handful of attempts at connectivity - guitar-strumming emcee Jim (Golden) backed out on a date with Rhetta (Heidt) so he could (gasp) go fishing, and so on - but you're mostly expected to sit back and enjoy simple tunes about simple subjects ranging from hanging out to vacationing, from self-service gas stations to Dolly Parton, from the meaning of grandmothers to the meaning of sisters.

The music is pleasing enough, even if it veers from overamplified to inaudible. (Sound designer Christopher Baine must have been highly challenged by both the claustrophobic space and singers who sound like they really need electronic assistance.) And even if the performers generate fewer sparks than your average roll of Wint-O-Green Life Savers, no one leaves a bad taste in your mouth. (Holt, as vaguely dangerous bass player Eddie, makes the strongest impression by saying and doing the least.) And the diner-auto shop set, likely the work of technical director Dan Wheeless, is an impressive fixture in the tiny theater.

Standley could, however, stand to drill everyone a bit more in the show's busier musical numbers, to reduce some latent muddiness in both song and dance. But does it really matter? Everything is so slight that even more agreeable songs like "No Holds Barred," which the group sings on their trip to Florida (don't ask), sound like unreleased singles being given their one-and-only airing by highly sympathetic country radio stations. And the synthetic folksy charm, which brings about such moments as Heidt and Middleton playing percussion on cheese graters and whisks, can only hold your interest for so long.

The most enjoyable part of the evening is, unsurprisingly, when the cast is forced to be themselves. It occurs at the start of the second act, when they drop all the pretense to gleefully raffle off a packet of air freshener, with the lucky winner getting to choose between Christmas, Skunk, and Bikini scents. Aside from spending some one-on-one time with the cast - who for the first time seem to actually enjoy themselves - the winner is also likely to be the first to rid himself of the show's sadly stale odor.

Pump Boys and Dinettes
Through May 27
Manhattan Theatre Source, 177 MacDougal Street between 5th and 6th Avenues, off of 8th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Theatermania

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