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Hospitality invites conflicted emotions

Theater is about secrets. It's about what the audience knows that the characters don't, what the characters keep from each other and themselves, and what the audience doesn't find out until just the right moment. Hospitality, a locally grown play showing at the Crystal Theatre, is a comedy of secrets. It's full of people with something up their sleeves and eavesdropping from under the kitchen table.

Written by Leslie Stoll O'Neill and directed by Howard Kingston, Hospitality blends the "sister flick" with a "save the farm" western sub-plot. Its characters range from an ex-physicist with obsessive-compulsive habits to a wisecracking old aunt who reads Playgirl before bed and gets naked in a pond to taunt the neighbors. In this respect, Hospitality does what a good story is supposed to do: tantalize you with the familiar while assaulting you with eccentricities.

The premise is straight-forward enough. Years ago Matilda Stein (O'Neill) gave up her dream career in physics to convert the family farm into a guesthouse that's now struggling to make a profit. One month before the impossible $300,000 balloon payment is due to keep the farm in the family, Matilda's two sisters, Bella (Ann Peacock) and Trudy (Lauren Cobb), come to spend a few days at the house to celebrate the sisters' shared birthday month. Joining them is family friend and Matilda's ex-flame Jamie (Justin Fatz) and the show-stealing Aunt Martha (Margaret F. Johnson). What unfolds is an escalating farce about family affairs, a few sharp insights into the nature of love and plenty of tenderness between the cracks.

As a comedy, Hospitality manages to keep the laughs going for most of the show. Unfortunately, the humor occasionally runs itself into the ground. For example, Bella, while plotting her seduction of a male character, asks her sister, "Do you think he likes garters?" to her sister's obvious reply, "I would bet on it," is the only punch line we need. But she follows it up with, "Since he's a man," which is a little too much like explaining the funny.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters

While the acting is occasionally stilted, the rambunctiousness of the performance makes up for it. Characters tend to deliver too many lines into the air instead of to each other, which can be disengaging. But when the actors do manage to connect, those moments shine. Johnson, as Aunt Martha, flings quip after quip into the crowd, but her character transcends the farcical in a few touchingly real moments of reminiscence over her first husband (the second faked his death to get the hell away from her).

Peacock, as Bella, delivers her lines with such sincerity it's a shame that her character is one of the script's least developed—which might account for why her chemistry with Fatz' Jamie is downright uncomfortable. On the other hand, Jamie's wonderfully snappy performance mixes with the wry and sarcastic Matilda for such striking chemistry that it altered my expectations for the story's outcome. Cobb is delightful as Trudy, but she also suffers from having to play a character written without much substance. William O'Neill Jr. (Stoll O'Neill's father, in fact), who plays a ranch hand, delivers a dash of authentic Montana. Director Kingston brandishes his brief moments onstage with devilish charm.

Most of the time, Hospitality is straight-up silliness, and chances are the viewer won't be moved to tears or spiritually transformed. What makes Hospitality really interesting is its bizarre conclusion. The story opens with comedic realism and gradually grows more and more outrageous until it reaches an abruptly melodramatic peak. The secrets start pouring out with a slightly surreal tempo and dissonance that drives the story toward an ending that, while not fully earned, strikes with such awkward confidence you might just find yourself experiencing a strange new blend of conflicting emotions. If you've seen Ricky Gervais' "The Office," you'll have some idea what I mean. The effect is jarring enough to thoroughly enjoy if taken with the right attitude.

Ultimately, Hospitality is an important story for the Montana stage. Among the reckless jokes and the ticklish chaos emerge a triumph of the average family and the rustic lifestyle, but the play also represents the tricky business of openness in a society dominated by obscurity and misinformation. In its best moments, the characters are brutally honest with each other. In this way, the play's secrets and their revelations place power back in the hands of real people relating to one another as best as they can.

Hospitality continues at the Crystal Theatre from Thu., April 11, to Sat., April 13, at 7:30 PM. $15/$13 in advance at eventbrite.com, or call 406-241-8425.

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