Way Off Broadway follows a group of community theater actors as they put on a show for a visiting Broadway producer, in the hopes of hitting it big. The show was written and directed by Mike Trippiedi, who has been acting, directing, and writing at the Station since 1975.
Before seeing the play, and after I’d read a summary of the show, I was instantly reminded of the plot of Christopher Guest’s mockumentary Waiting for Guffman. So, while the concept of the show doesn’t strike me as overly original, and the play is ― at times ― a bit disjointed, it’s carried by its strong performances and its humorous look at community theater clichés.
The play’s main character, Jimmy (Mike McGreevy), is a down-on-his-luck grocery bagger who’s gone through several get-rich-quick schemes, and has yet to propose to Tawny (Sarah Heier, who performs two hilarious and impressive monologues), his girlfriend of 12 years. In his next attempt at making a fortune, Jimmy gets in touch with one of his Facebook friends, who stole Jimmy’s lunch money as a child, but is now a hotshot Broadway producer. He convinces the producer to come to town to view the original show that Jimmy is writing and directing. Rehearsals begin and “showmances,” superstitions, and mishaps ensue.
The second act of Way Off Broadway serves as a play within a play, with the first and third acts bookending the “production.” Jimmy’s play (entitled Blowjob and featuring bombs, chastity belts, and villains with multiple personalities) attempts to cram as much slapstick humor as possible into thirty minutes. While slapstick isn’t always my cup of tea, much of the audience was laughing hysterically through the entire act, and I admired the actors’ commitment to their roles.
As someone who has performed in community theater productions off and on for about as long as I can remember, my favorite part of the show was easily its send-up of community theater clichés. Marvin (Lincoln Machula) relies on superstitions and dry heaving to get through a performance. Lane (Jessica Coburn) is set on becoming a Broadway star through just about any means. And Ron (Monty Joyce) is a very serious actor who is extremely particular about the way his name is listed in the program. I’ve met people like this in the various shows I’ve been a part of, and I could see a bit of myself in the characters (never mention the name of the Scottish Play if you’re in a show with me). Way Off Broadway does an excellent job of capturing what it’s like to be a community theater actor.
The strongest points of the play are the ones like these, which develop the characters and subtly show off their quirks. Because of this, the first and third acts of the show were my favorites. However, there are some disjointed parts, particularly with the character of Jimmy’s mother (Kay Bohannon Holley), who is depicted as having memory loss. At first it seemed like this was for comic effect, but as the show went on, I felt like the audience’s laughter turned to that awkward nervous laughter where you’re not sure if this is supposed to be funny or not. This seemed to me like a plot point the show could have done without, since it brought the energy down every time it was mentioned. Also, for me, the show wraps up a little too neatly, which causes its ending to come off as unbelievable.
Despite the weaknesses, I enjoyed Way Off Broadway’s overarching concepts. The rainbow is a common theme throughout, tying in with the characters’ attempts to fulfill a common dream: Being able to make a living by performing on stage and making people happy. While it may be a little cheesy, the idea of chasing dreams and going after what you want in life are worth doing, even if the end result isn’t always what you expected.
Way Off Broadway runs through November 19 at the Station Theatre. To reserve tickets, call 217-384-4000 or visit www.stationtheatre.com.
Photos by Jesse Folks. Used with permission.