Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Drinking Habits
Don Bluth Front Row Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's review of Gypsy

Lauren Tye, Priscilla Bertling, and Pat Drapac
Photo by Stephanie Cartwright
Playwright Tom Smith has written dozens of plays, including dramas, comedies, and shows for youth, and even though he may not be a household name, his comedy Drinking Habits is a hilarious farce that is fast paced and funny. While it isn't quite on the level of other well-known titles in the category, such as Noises Off and Lend Me a Tenor, it ingeniously combines mistaken and assumed identities with paranoia, well drawn characters, revealed secrets, and an abundance of hijinks. Smith's play is receiving a terrific production at Don Bluth Front Row Theatre, with an ensemble of talented comic actors and sure-footed direction that delivers plenty of belly laughs.

The story takes place entirely in the main room of the convent of the Sisters of Perpetual Sewing. Mother Superior has been inflating the size of the order for years so they don't get shut down, while, unbeknownst to her, Sister Philamena and Sister Augusta have been secretly making wine from the grapes in their orchard to keep the convent doors open. When Mother Superior receives a letter from Rome saying they are sending someone to check on and close down "insignificant" orders, she believes the newly arrived, sweet and soft-spoken Sister Mary Catherine to be the spy that Rome sent and that they'll be shut down for good. Added to the insanity are two reporters, Sally and Paul, who come are searching for the makers of the local wine that has won a huge cash prize. They go undercover as a nun and priest, naturally, to determine if the convent is making the wine. On top of that, Father Chenille believes "Father" Paul has been sent to replace him, while Sister Philamena and Sister Augusta are fearful that their secret winemaking will be revealed. Paranoia and insanity set in along with romance and several surprise revelations.

Smith's script does a great job incorporating the large ensemble of mostly stereotypical characters into the plot while giving us enough information about them so we have a good understanding of their back stories. While it does take a little time for all of the elements to click into place, the pacing works well to allow the craziness to slowly ratchet up, with a funny act one finale and a pleasing conclusion along with several laugh out loud moments. There are a few characters with outcomes that are very contrived, but their conclusions are still entirely charming and even sweet natured. However, there are a few things the play brings up but never follows through on, including a mention made fairly early about how the convent abides to several moments of silence each day, but that is only incorporated once into the script and is very brief.

Director Van Rockwell does an admirable job keeping the pace fresh and the comical lines funny. His staging makes good use of the small Don Bluth theatre space. Farces usually require several doors that can be slammed throughout and, since that wouldn't quite work for this intimate thrust space, Rockwell has the various entrances to the theatre stand in for what would be doors into the other rooms off the main convent room setting. There is only one scene, in which a character passes out behind a trunk with his leg visible to anyone who is close by, that could be staged better, since several dialogue exchanges are set right by the table, yet no one makes any mention of the other character laying on the ground even though they are cleary visible. Fortunately, the entire cast do a fairly good job ensuring their comic timing and physical comedy get laughs from the many jokes in the script.

Priscilla Bertling and Lauren Tye make a great comic duo who play off each other as the no-nonsense and bossy Sister Augusta and the nervous nun who gets tongue tied when she tries to tell a lie, Sister Philamena. As the staunch Mother Superior, Pat Drapac is a hoot, with wonderful facial expressions that get big laughs. Adam Petzold and Hillary Low are very good as the romantic Paul and the career-minded Sally, who were previously engaged until Sally left Paul at the alter while she followed up a lead on a story. James Rowe is lovely as the sweet and charming landscaper George (though his British accent seems a bit out of sorts when we learn that George grew up around an orphanage in France) and Madeleine Miller does a wonderful job as the slightly naïve and innocent novice Mary Catherine. Hal Bliss provides a nice, soft-spoken portrayal of Father Chenille.

Cheryl Schaar's set and prop design are simple but effective. The costumes by Corinne Hawkins are excellent. I don't know if it was Hawkins' or Rockwell's idea, or something in the script, but the wooden ruler on a rope attached to the Mother Superior's costume is hilarious. The lighting by Schaar, Bret Reese, and Rockwell includes some fun, quick lighting changes that add to the hilarity, and the sound design by Rockwell and Roger McKay features some humorous effects, although some of the musical clips used for a few brief moments are a tad cheesy.

With a gifted cast and assured direction, Drinking Habits at Don Bluth Front Row Theatre is a winner.

Drinking Habits runs through February 26, 2022, at the Don Bluth Front Row Theatre, 8989 E. Vía Linda #118, Scottsdale AZ. For tickets and information visit or call 480-314-0841.

Directed by Van Rockwell
Assistant Director: Stephanie Cartwright
Scenic & Properties Designer: Cheryl Schaar
Lighting Designer: Cheryl Schaar, Bret Reese and Van Rockwell
Sound Designer: Van Rockwell and Roger McKay
Costume Designer: Corinne Hawkins
Stage Manager: Malcolm Hooper

Sister Augusta: Priscilla Bertling
Sister Philamena: Lauren Tye
George: James Rowe
Mother Superior: Pat Drapac
Sally: Hillary Low
Paul: Adam Petzold
Mary Catherine: Madeleine Miller
Father Chenille: Hal Bliss