South Park Theatre’s production of Katherine DiSavino and Kevin Mead’s play, Seasonal Allergies, reminds us that dealing with recovery from loss is not a skill in which us humans generally excel. When we hurt, it tends to makes other people uncomfortable. Even among those who genuinely desire to help us with our pain, the cultural default seems to be the urge to tell the wounded to keep busy and remind them to move on.
Such is the situation in Seasonal Allergies, directed by Lorraine Mszanski. Good-intentioned Julia Shelby (Krista Strosnider) wants to help her divorcing brother, Pete Dumbowski (Cameron Nickel). She offers him the living room couch in her domestic sphere, which includes her husband/Pete’s best friend, Thomas (Erick Rigby) and their eight-year old daughter, Charlotte (Chelsie Clydesdale). Alas, it turns out the siblings haven’t changed much since childhood. As older sister, Julia plays mom and battles control freak tendencies. Pete as the little brother drives her nuts by thoughtlessly littering the living room with dirty laundry.
Cameron Nickel as Pete is the weakest link in this production. While the other characters are cast age appropriately, Nickel is clearly quite young (in fact, he’s still in college). Visually, it stretches credulity that he has a successful dental practice and is divorcing after five years of marriage. His youth is exacerbated by the fact his performance lacks nuance, a miss on director Lorraine Mszanski’s part. Nickel vacillates between overly dramatic manic mode and a poor imitation of pain.
Mszanski also fails to cultivate the relationship between Pete and Thomas. They are supposed to be best friends but feel more like father and son. In fact, Thomas is clearly better bonded with J.D. (Timothy Dougherty), the husband of Julia’s best friend, Allison (Danette Marie Levers). The play opens on Thanksgiving Day with Thomas and J.D. planted on the couch in green Jets gear chugging beer and cheering for their beloved football team. While Dougherty perfectly captures the stereotypical corpulent football fan, it’s a stretch to envision him as the florist he’s supposed to be. His aesthetics seem limited to toting around a shrimp platter he snacks from and eating leftover Thanksgiving stuffing out of Tupperware on the couch. His lack of delicacy is reinforced by an atrocious fake bouquet he brings Julia, an abysmal miss for a supposed florist by prop designer Elizabeth Lucas.
Rigby brings a light humor to Thomas’ character. Mszanski develops a playful marital banter that feels genuine between him and Julia’s Strosnider. Rigby’s most memorable scene is when he’s alone in the kitchen crafting a towering sandwich of Thanksgiving leftovers pre-Black Friday shopping to the roiling music of Mannheim Steamroller Christmas. It’s a total dad moment.
Levers shines as Allison. Like Julia, she’s a bit of a control freak, which DiSavino and Mead seem to troublingly suggest is part of the successful woman trajectory. Julia is a notable chef, and Allison is a thriving attorney. Allison is learning to surrender control as she’s perched on the edge of 40 and pregnant with her first child. Levers has an irreverent charm, vocally longing for a vodka at the Thanksgiving table while also recognizing her prego flattened bladder now rules her world.
Costume designer J. Childe Pendergast maintains cohesion among a dazzling number of costume changes. She also does a nice job of continuing to inflate Allison’s pregnant stomach throughout the play, which stretches from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve. Levers already looks like a bursting turkey at the Thanksgiving table, but she’s a shaken bottle of champagne begging to be uncorked by New Year’s Eve. Allison’s expanding belly also serves as a visual metaphor for the building familial tensions.
The final character in this ensemble is Emily Cantwell (Riley Stanzione), a neighbor and young widow whose front yard fir tree is mistakenly mowed down by Pete’s car. When we learn that Emily and Pete both love Thanksgiving’s much-maligned creamed onions, it’s clearly the precursor to wedding bells. If only life were so simple… Admittedly, it’s hard to understand Emily’s attraction to Pete. He doesn’t want to sign his divorce papers and seems to awkwardly weird out in her presence and want to talk about his soon-to-be ex-wife. Mszanski can’t find a sensible motivation for the relationship beyond creamed onions, and Emily comes across as pitying poor Pete.
However, the play’s primary faults lie with writers Katherine DiSavino and Kevin Mead. While there are some chuckles, the overall script lacks originality. When Pete storms out queen-like on Christmas Eve swearing to never return, you know with absolute certainty he’ll be back. And there he is on New Year’s Eve. As the siblings chat, it is a feel good moment. Much like the creamed onion connection, you long for the illusion of five-minute adult conversations on tough subjects that let everyone enter the new year with a clean conscience. Cheers to that.
South Park Theatre’s production of Seasonal Allergies continues through June 30th. For more details, visit South Park Theatre online.
Categories: Archived Reviews