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Uncultivated comedy 

by Michael Bowen

If you go out of your way to watch old reruns of Mr. Ed, I Dream of Jeannie and Gilligan's Island, you'll love this show. It's full of one-dimensional characters who do and say predictable things. In John Patrick's The Girls of the Garden Club, people are so shallow, they might as well be wearing labels on their foreheads: I'm deaf and cranky. I'm the arrogant one. I'm stupid. And I'm the one who's with stupid.

People will say, oh, those snooty critics. I had a fine time, many folks will claim. It was really funny. Why do those reviewers have to be so solemn? Everything doesn't have to be Hamlet. Sometimes, especially in these difficult times, people just want a little escape.

Couldn't agree more. Sometimes we want to get involved for a couple of hours in the lives of people who resemble us. They have some good points and some flaws, but their lives are more full of silliness. That way, we can laugh at their mistakes. It's reassuring, really. We may be a bit jealous or impractical or socially inept, but surely we're not as bad as those buffoons up there under the lights.

The trick for writers of comedy, then, is to guide our escape into a world that's somewhat like our own. But in Patrick's world, the people aren't like you and me. They're not rounded; they're just stereotypes.

Much of Garden Club goes like this: setup, straight line, joke; setup, punchline; setup, straight line, bad pun. The script is so intent on its jokes that it keeps telling them even after the wisecracking has already cracked. For example, our flower-fanatic heroine, Rhoda Greenleaf, named her daughter Marigold in hopes of cloning a little horticultural miniature of herself. Alas, the ungrateful child is all thumbs (none of them green) and the name is wasted. Much humor (ostensibly) ensues. But the daughter (Latisha Conto, full of laconic teen spirit) has her revenge: "Mom, you should've married a man named Dendron."

Now, at this point, in the next couple of seconds, I'm thinking, okay, got it, Rhoda Dendron, playing on the name of the flower, that's cute, can't be too critical now, you've been known to engage in some wordplay yourself, surely nobody needs that explained, she's not going to explain it to us, doesn't he know that explanations kill jokes?

She's explaining it. "That way," continues the daughter, "you would've been called Rhoda Dendron."

Har, har. No surprise, no humor. Can we move along? What time does this play let out?

Girls certainly isn't trying to inform or educate. All it wants to do is entertain. But it assumes that its viewers have the mentality of fifth-graders. It plods on, content with being comedy of the lowest common denominator, and forfeits its entertainment value.

Thankfully, the failure isn't total. Several Civic actors serve this poor material well. There's Maria A. Caprile as Dora, a doofus who parrots whatever her best pal, Evie (Carey Chilton Charyk) has just said. With her black horn-rim glasses and ever-ready fanny pack, Caprile enlivens the part of the female nerd. Jone Campbell Bryan portrays Lillybelle, an oleaginous socialite, forever dripping condescension and false pleasantries.

The real crowd-pleaser in the cast is Alice Kennedy as Birdie, the deaf and crotchety old lady who gets most of the good lines. With the abandon of an elder who just doesn't care what people think anymore, she cuts through all the manure like some kind of wizened comic chorus. But even her brand of humor got tiresome. For example, when fancypants Lillybelle is parading her French at every opportunity, saying "Oui, oui, ma cheri" to Birdie, the old lady makes a pun on going "wee wee" that was so predictable, you could see the potty humor coming long before it got splattered all over the stage.

The best reason to put up with the script's inanities, though, is the acting of Kathy Doyle-Lipe as the central character, Rhoda Greenleaf. In physical comedy, Doyle-Lipe is up alongside Lucille Ball. When her plant starts talking to her, she precisely imparts shock, incredulity and the self-consciousness of someone who fears being taken for a ride. She conveys drunkenness without slipping over into mere caricature. She's exasperated with her family, scheming with her friends, defiant in the face of obstacles, lovable in her moments of triumph. One might almost say that Rhoda edges past stereotype. Doyle-Lipe makes the most of the play's best part and delivers bravura comedy.

On the technical side, Nik Adams designed and decorated the ultra-floral set, which spotlights Rhoda's botanical obsession without being overbearing. The costumes (credited to the fashion foursome of Dee Finan, Susan Berger, SaraEllen M. Hutchinson and Rebecca Cook) boosted the comedy: electric shirts for Rhoda's not-even-monosyllabic husband, Rhoda's floral and gaudy formalwear, the hip slovenliness of the teenagers in the cast and the gauzy, overly made-up nouveau riche ladies of the garden club.

We get to observe one of the garden club meetings, too. One presentation informs us that dried flowers "should be hung downwards, head first," to which Birdie rejoins, "Just like the Democrats." Fair enough. And indeed, just like Patrick's play. Hang it by the neck, please, until it's dead, then bury it in the garden, somewhere out near the compost bin.

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