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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Heather Tom On Stage Abuse Continues in Bloomfield Premiere of John Wooten’s
Happy Hour

Happy Hour
Sam Kitchin, Heather Tom and Jimmy Gushue
Happy Hour, the world premiere play developed and now in production at Bloomfield’s 12 Miles West Center for the Arts, is a fast paced, lurid, overheated melodrama. As performed by a talented cast under the lively direction of company artistic director Lenny Bart, the play makes for some rousing and involving entertainment. However, playwright Wooten has a lot of work ahead of him in order to transform Happy Hour into a first rate example of its genre.

The set up is well worn, but worthy. Perennial loser Frank is the proprietor of a run down gin mill in New Mexican desert country. Entertainment is provided by tired strippers. Frank’s daughter Jennifer helps him out at a bar, but usually departs before the evening action starts. The menacing Beck is the leader of a tough, punkish motorcycle gang that patronizes the club.

Frank is barely getting by. The failure of a proposed gambling ordinance has thwarted his hopes to make a killing, and “Feds” are applying pressure because of ongoing prostitution by the strippers. However, on a September afternoon, Frank is in a celebratory mood. He is convinced that the gambling ordinance has been revived and is being enacted at this very moment. He has paid a bribe to a State Senator to accomplish this. The contact has been made by Beck, who has also loaned Frank the money for the bribe and the purchase of gambling tables. Beck is to get a piece of the action for his efforts.

On the afternoon in question, Jim, a clean cut graduate student on the road to the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque, arrives seeking help in repairing his overheated, broken down car.

You will not be surprised to learn that the ordinance does not pass, that Beck demands a greater stake in the business as Frank cannot repay his loan, and that affection blossoms between Jennifer and Jim. Additionally, Beck insists that the fresh and appealing Jennifer become a stripper in order to revive business. The homicidal Beck (we are informed of a lurid set of murders which he has committed) backs up his demands with dire threats.

Sam Kitchin is a properly unsympathetic Frank. His shifty body language conveys the myopic, self-deluding loser who will continue to make life miserable for those closest to him because he can neither face nor overcome the fact that he is a dim-witted schemer.

A marquee attraction here is Heather Tom. The daytime soap opera veteran (two Emmy wins for The Young and the Restless and a nominee this season for One Life to Live) is a glutton for punishment. Last year at this very time, Toms starred on Broadway in the exorable Prymate, which is also set in the New Mexican desert. In Prymate, Tom, performing in the buff, saves herself from a sex crazed ape (played by Andre DeShields) by masturbating him.

Happy Hour is a considerably less ludicrous play than Prymate. Still, 12 Miles West of Broadway, Tom is again appearing au naturel, and again fights off a rape attempt, this time by the apish Beck. Tom overcomes inconsistencies in the writing to create a warm and sympathetic Jennifer who is torn between devotion for her undeserving father and the lifeline offered to her by Jim.

Beck is an unnuanced, full throttle villain, and Jimmy Gushue strongly displays both the snaky charm and scary penchant for violent behavior that has made him a leader among his fellow predators. Luckily, I love scary performances as I wouldn’t want to have this frightening guy mad at me.

Rounding out the quintet of fine performances are Paul Reisman’s likeable Ben and Jim Aylward as the crusty retiree who is a gin mill regular.

So just what are the problems? For starters, the level of luridness is too high for ready believability. Beck’s pre-first act series of murders are unnecessarily over the top. Jennifer’s donning a stripper’s outfit and commencing a routine at the rail almost immediately after Frank conveys Beck’s demand that Jennifer strip is totally implausible. In fact, there are a number of inconsistencies in Wooten’s Jennifer. Why does such a sweetheart respond with such hostility to the arrival of the mild and innocuous Jim? Why does she put up with her father’s abuse of her throughout, only to strike out at him when he eschews his bad behavior? Why does she seem so sharp from the beginning, only to act so self destructively when the full danger that she faces is revealed? While nudity is an appropriate sensual component of this melodramatic entertainment, it feels very gratuitous when it is the outgrowth of behavior not grounded in character.

Throughout the first act, the fact that Jennifer is Frank’s daughter is never mentioned. Although it strongly appears that this, or something close to it, must be an operative factor here, it is not specified until the second act. There is no reason for the distraction that this causes in the first act. The direction is strong until the final moments of the play when the physical actions of Frank (there is no dialogue here) appear to contravene any possibility of his carrying out the specified actions which seem surely to have been intended to conclude the play. Or is Frank just screwing things up again?

Jessica Parks’ large, detailed set and Liz Zazzi’s costumes just reek of verisimilitude, (here comes the nitpick of the year) although potato chips are a regional product and Wise brand are only distributed on the East Coast.

Reservations notwithstanding, it is hard to imagine that there will be many who will not be entertained by 12 Mile West’s lively and unrestrained production of John Wooten’s pulp fictional play, Happy Hour.

Happy Hour continues performances through June 12, 2005 (Fri. & Sat. @ 8pm/ Sun. @ 3pm) at 12 Miles West Center for the Arts, 562 Bloomfield Avenue, Bloomfield, NJ 07003. Box office: 973-259-9187; online www.12mileswest.org

Happy Hour by John Wooten; directed by Lenny Bart
Cast
Frank ..... Sam Kitchin
Jennifer ..... Heather Tom
Beck ..... Jimmy Gushue
Ben ..... Jim Aylward
Jim ..... Paul Reisman


Photo: Sean Hennessy/12 Miles West


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- Bob Rendell



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