Tennessee Stage Company's 2017 New Play Festival delivers easy theatre fun with its latest world premiere, The Nearly Final Almost Posthumous Play of the Not Quite Dead Sutton McAllister (technically: N.F.A.P.P.N.Q.D.S.M. but let’s go with Posthumous for short). With broad strokes situational humor, a cast of characters and shticks that recall silver screen sitcoms like, I Love Lucy or The Dick Van Dyke Show, with a missing manuscript, a meddlesome maid, and mistaken identities, Posthumous mines familiar comedic ground and comes up with fresh laughs.
The once great, now declining playwright Sutton McAllister (Bruce Borin) suffers a stroke which causes him to forget where he stashed his latest completed work, and renders him incapable of communicating anything other than ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Enter his dastardly niece Edith Entwistle (Stephanie Quist) and her lecherous husband Albert (Steven Trigg) who arrive at Sutton’s estate under the pretense of caring for the aging scribe while secretly plotting to murder him and make a fortune on a posthumous publication of his new play. Sutton’s true friend and loyal agent, Duffy Donnelly (Chad Wood) hires the beautiful struggling actress Tori Russell (Caitlin Corbitt) to pose as Sutton’s sultry and dimwitted nurse to keep tabs on the Entwistles and locate the manuscript before the malicious couple makes off with it. All the while, the nearly silent Mrs. Lawson (Terry Colquitt) prowls around pulling strings behind the scenes to hilarious effect. Thus, the stage is set for a night of lighthearted gags, slapstick, and big reveals.
New plays are tough, and new comedies even tougher, but director Tom Parkhill wisely utilizes the intimate space at Knoxville Theatre Downtown, providing his actors with plenty of opportunities for sly bits of understated comedy that would have been less effective in a larger venue. His cast of veteran performers exchange the kind of fast paced banter that place the production in the tradition of shows like Guys and Dolls or Father of the Bride. As the villain of the piece, Stephanie Quest's Edith is full of icy stares, false adoration, and a venomous personality that works well in its own right, and serves as an amusing counterpoint to Caitlin Corbitt's Nurse Russell. Corbitt deftly alternates between sultry ditz and earnest heroine, infusing both humor and unexpected sympathy into a role which could have easily become one dimensional. Steven Trigg oozes bumbling lechery as Albert, and the physical comedy between him and Corbitt serves as one of the show's centerpieces. Veteran actor, Chad Wood carves out several humorous moments while dutifully serving as the show's straight man, Duffy. And finally, Terry Colquitt delights as Mrs Lawson with several interludes of solo pantomime that made for some of the evening's most crowd pleasing moments. Unfortunately on the night I attended, I was sad to learn that the cast’s most senior member, Bruce Borin, a fixture in the Knoxville theatre scene, veteran of television and film, and the show’s titular character, had been hospitalized earlier that day. His role was gracefully filled by Tom Parkhill, but we wish Bruce the speediest of recoveries.
On a technical level the show also benefits from the talents of scenic designer Sarah Deathridge who does an excellent job evoking the lavish study of a large mansion within the confines of TKD’s somewhat limited space. She makes several solid choices that Technical Director Margy Ragsdale and Master Carpenter Chad Wood materialize very effectively. Likewise the costumes and properties by Arri Lemons were well integrated, interesting, and detailed enough to stand the scrutiny of an audience in close proximity.
Now, like I said, new plays are hard, and while Posthumous definitely delivers on laughs, playwright Kris Bauske’s script is not without its flaws. There is a too much exposition running through the first half of the show, and the characters remind us about (the relatively few) salient plot points a little too often. The players navigate these moments with aplomb, but the script could stand a bit of pruning in my opinion. Some of the jokes occasionally feel a bit culturally tone deaf (I particularly rankled at a running joke concerning the assumed sexual orientation of men in the theatre), and the final scene functions more as an epilogue than comedy. But these small details certainly didn’t keep me from taking part in the fun, and besides, that’s why the TSC’s New Play Festival exists: to stage the work of burgeoning playwrights in front of live audiences, to help them truly discover which moments in their script still need polishing, and which moments (like most of the ones in this play) will be met with laughter and applause.
Posthumous runs Thursday - Sunday March 10 - 26, at Theatre Knoxville Downtown.
For reservations visit www.tennesseestage.com or call 865 546 4280.
JP Schuffman is a theatre producer and occasional critic. He serves as the Producing Artistic Director for the Knoxville Theatre Club.