Mattie Salinger, the heroine of Jim Brochu's play Fat Chance, is pushing forty - both in age, and, if she's not careful, dress size. Mattie pads around her Philadelphia home in a robe and bunny slippers, snarfing down chocolates and watching soap operas. That's when she's on a break. When she's working, she pads around her Philadelphia home in a robe and bunny slippers, snarfing down chocolates and creating sculptures that sell for tens of thousands of dollars. She's smart, funny, wealthy, slightly pretentious (peppering her dialogue with French phrases for absolutely no reason), good-naturedly self-mocking, and enough of a success that she can pass off her reluctance to ever leave her house as eccentricity.
This comedy partners Mattie with Alex Tyler, a young drifter from Texas whose car conveniently breaks down outside Mattie's house just when she needs a nude model for her next sculpture. Alex is uneducated, hasn't bathed in a few days, and happens to be good looking enough to be standing unclothed for Mattie within a half hour of their first meeting. This show has all the makings of a fine romantic comedy, as Alex tries to convince Mattie both that she is physically attractive and that he has more to offer than just a pretty body.
Brochu has populated Mattie's life with a strong supporting cast of comic characters. Mattie's housekeeper and good friend, Aura, comes straight from the school of smartass cleaning women and adds laughs to every scene in which she appears. Mattie's overbearing mother, Victoria, barrels her way into the play, attempting to control Mattie's life in a comically overplayed version of motherly protectiveness gone horribly astray. Even a bit-player police officer, who is a big fan of Mattie's art, has his share of laughs.
Where the play goes wrong is in its attempt to be more than a sweet romantic comedy. The first act ends on a surprising revelation, leading to a more dramatic second act in which old wounds are reopened, and the play spends time seriously considering issues regarding the cause of Mattie's low self-esteem. It's really unnecessary. Everything that Mattie needs to work out with respect to her self-image can be done within the context of her budding relationship with Alex. The dramatic scenes kill the pace of the play; we know that ultimately everything is going to work out all right for Mattie, and watching her slowly resolve these issues adds nothing to the piece.
Not so with the comic scenes. Even though we all know where the show is going, the comedy in the play makes the voyage worth the trip. The bulk of Brochu's jokes hit their marks. Some of the most successful laugh lines work because they are unexpected; director Anthony Barnao keeps the first act moving at a fast clip, rarely allowing the pace to slow and the audience to guess a punchline before it comes.
The biggest success in the play is Jonelle Allen as Aura. Aura appears solely in the comedic parts of the play, and Allen lands each and every one of Aura's lines - to the point where as soon as she opens her mouth, the audience leans in, waiting for the laugh we know is coming. Ann Partrich gives a solid performance as Mattie, although, being at the center of the play, she also has the largest percentage of Brochu's weaker material. (Her frustrated attempt to give her unformed clay a karate chop and her drunken address of the policeman as "occifer" are beneath both Mattie and Brochu.) But when she has better lines to work with, as she does for most of the play, her delivery is funny as well as revelatory of her character. Mattie frequently makes fat jokes at her own expense, and when she does, Partrich shows us Mattie's superficially self-accepting sense of humor, as well as her true feelings beneath. There's good stuff coming out of the comedy in Fat Chance, and that's really all the play needs.
Blue Sphere Alliance presents Fat Chance, written by Jim Brochu, directed by Anthony Barnao. Set Designer Anthony Barnao; Lighting Designer Cris Capp. Produced for Blue Sphere Alliance by Anthony Barnao.
Fat Chance plays at the Lex Theatre in Hollywood through July 6, 2002, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with special performances Sunday at 7 p.m. on June 23 and June 30. Tickets are $15; students seniors and groups for $12. For reservations and information, call (323) 957-5782.
Photo by Becky Meister