& lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & hile sitting at a play the other night, I displayed my chest hair to a romance novelist, brandished moonstones to ward off an obnoxious drunk, and caught two walnuts in a toilet plunger.
When you attend Relative Chaos: The Plumb-Nutts Family Reunion, you're part of the production. You're seated with one of the families (me, I was a Nutt), and they have you fill out a 25-item questionnaire (sample: "Would you pay someone to make sure that Verizon guy can't hear you now?") as an ice-breaker between you and your table mates. (They may be your "relatives" now, but five minutes ago, they were total strangers.) It's an interactive dinner theater experience during which an attorney with a camcorder fixation (Dennis Ashley) or a fervent animal-rights activist (Erin Wissing) may confront you over the appetizers: Read this pamphlet about spaying -- now. Failure to neuter is a real problem, you know. Enjoy your pea salad!
Relative Chaos (at CenterStage through April 14) provides structured play for adults -- a big sandbox for rediscovering your inner show-off. From the moment the fussy event-planner (Jone Campbell Bryan, who also directs) ushers you to your table, you find yourself in an alternate world in which what matters is whether inept writer Dolly Plumb-Nutts (Evelyn Renshaw) can gather enough material for her next romance novel. (I suggested that she include lots of bodice-ripping and maybe a hairy chest, even as I seductively unfastened a couple of shirt buttons just to give her the idea. She frowned and walked away. But a guy at the next table perked up his ears at "bodice-ripping.")
Then I try heckling that drunken lout Pete Nutt (Jamie Flanery, full of braggadocio). He's working the tables, telling people that they're "Plumb out of line" while sloshing his vodka all around. Hey, Pete, ever heard of an "intervention"?
Sure, some of Plumb-Nutts is sophomoric, several of the scripted musical skits should be cut altogether, and some of the actors are better at off-the-cuff comedy than others. But they all have their moments. They look like they're having fun up there -- and back there, and over in the corner. (Is that Sugar and Jeff enjoying a prolonged make-out session?) Because the Plumb-Nutts' antics take place all around the audience -- you do a lot of shifting around in your seat, for all the right reasons: Because you're involved in the show.
Playwright Jean Kavanagh still needs to cut an hour out of this work-in-progress, including most of the obviously rehearsed sketch-comedy musical numbers. (There are take-offs on The Beverly Hillbillies, Marvin Gaye and the Eagles that were, frankly, embarrassing to watch. It doesn't help that there's not a singer in the entire cast who can project or stay on key.)
The skits fail because after the actors have worked hard to create a merger of illusion and reality, along comes some hokey pre-set business to remind us that for the next three minutes, it's not that anything could happen -- only that some dumb prearranged thing is going to happen.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & till, a real sense of team play emerges during Family Reunion: You're in this with the actors, and that sensation overcomes a lot of criticisms about poor execution. For one night, we're all in it together, creating an escapist illusion.
And all that goes well with the melon, macaroni, deviled eggs, corn with red peppers, garlic potatoes, ham and strawberry shortcake that I finally remembered to devour even though I'd shown up hungry for this family reunion. I was having so much fun, I forgot to eat.
As for my own performance during the Family Reunion, it was sensitive and -- how shall I say? -- beguilingly masculine. (And the rest of the CenterStage cast wasn't bad either.)
Hey, psychic moonbat lady (Judi Pratt, playing one of the Nutts with an endearing Agnes Moorhead-in-Bewitched vibe): Can I have another one of those moonstones?
"They'll create double the peaceful aura for you, my dear."
Screw the aura. I just want to ward off that Pete guy. He brings a lot of negative energy into the room, you know? And I need some positive chakras for the party game I just got hauled into -- something about throwing walnuts with toilet plungers.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & O & lt;/span & n two occasions, Flanery got so deeply involved in his improv that diners couldn't tell if he was just joking or seriously hurt. It's moments like these -- is it acting? is it real? -- that make interactive theater so unnerving and engaging and fun. Shows like Plumb-Nutts could reinvigorate CenterStage and provide a template for dragging a dinner theater out of the doldrums.