Good timing 

When in Rome launches with laughs

Comedy is about timing, and a segment in Dave Chappelle’s recently released Block Party DVD underscores the point. In a subdued one-on-one moment with the audience, Chappelle plays a piano in a Salvation Army warehouse and explains that Thelonious Monk was one of his greatest comedic influences—the late jazz musician had the knack of making every note sound just slightly rhythmically off, resulting in an inimitably perfect tension that Chappelle aims to replicate in his own stand-up delivery. Chappelle’s point is that in comedy, timing and technique are everything, and the secret to being a good performer is more about mastering delivery than the actual writing.

Chappelle is about as analogous to comedic playwright Neil Simon as Monk is to Kelly Clarkson, but the lesson is applicable to Simon’s The Star-Spangled Girl. Much has been written about Simon’s distaste for his 1967 play—he wrote in his autobiography that he lacked a clear vision of the characters and that he agreed with the infamous line from critic Walter Kerr, who wrote at the time, “Neil Simon didn’t have an idea for a play this year, but he wrote it anyway.” In other words, The Star-Spangled Girl is a far cry from Simon classics like 1963’s Barefoot in the Park and 1965’s The Odd Couple. It’s flawed, middling and populated with clichéd characters, and Simon knew it. But despite that avalanche of self-criticism, The Star-Spangled Girl still offers comedic wiggle room for the right performers to stretch out and collect more than a handful of laughs—Simon’s worst is, after all, better than many others’ best—if the actors have mastered their delivery.

When in Rome Productions’ debut performance does an admirable job of overcoming Simon’s script, and most of the credit goes to the three actors responsible for salvaging the material. Each brings his or her own personality and flair to the characters, making director and company co-founder Timmy L’Heureux’s production more a showcase of individual skills than an example of expert storytelling. Considering that The Star-Spangled Girl’s plotline is as simple as an episode of “Three’s Company,” this is a good thing.

Andy and Norman are two left-wing radicals who publish a protest magazine called Fallout from their San Francisco apartment circa 1967. The fledgling rag leaves Andy, the publisher, avoiding collection calls and recreating with the landlady to avoid paying rent. Andy’s one-man writing staff, Norman, is an eccentric genius in constant motion, doing laundry and other chores between bouts of hammering on his typewriter. Norman has zero social life, and just moments after dreaming to Andy about how he’s waiting for a beautiful brunette to move into the apartment next door so he can fall in love, the audience is introduced to Sophie Rauschmeyer, a beautiful brunette who—tah-dah!—has just moved in next door. Sophie is a southern belle, an Olympic swimmer and the type of gal who sings “all four verses of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’” What follows is predictable: Norman falls for Sophie, but despite her conservative values Sophie ends up lusting after the liberal Andy. Chaos ensues, throwing Sophie’s engagement to a deployed Marine, Norman and Andy’s friendship and Fallout’s future into peril.

The political undertone between Sophie and Andy is misleading—there’s very little social relevance to Simon’s slapstick. It’s written much more like a sitcom—a succession of telegraphed punchlines and situational humor—and only in the second act does the tone skew slightly toward red state/blue state debate before settling back into the tone’s rightful role as a comedy about a goofy love triangle.

Rachel Ross is unquestionably the star as Sophie. Her entrance is bombastic, and she proceeds to run roughshod in her role as a cartoon of a character (the über-patriot even bakes apple pie). Ross’ southern accent and fiercely pushy demeanor are spot-on, and her interaction with the two men is rousing, be it ferociously fed-up or bubbling with sexual tension. Her arguments with Andy are especially entertaining; he rants and she interjects suggestive come-ons.

Tyler D. Nielson and Seth McGhee bring their own over-the-top styles to Norman and Andy, respectively. Nielson is an intriguing physical package—freakishly tall and gangly with longish curly hair, he looks like a blonde Howard Stern—perfectly suited to Andy’s gawking and stumbling. He gets his laughs almost exclusively through physical comedy, although he trips through some of the punchlines. McGhee, playing a holier-than-thou intellectual, comes across like a mini-Jeremy Piven fighting quaaludes. When McGhee is red-line raging, his mannerisms and appearance are an almost exact match for Piven’s Emmy-nominated Ari Gold character on HBO’s “Entourage.” But when he’s not charged up, McGhee’s voice and presence unfortunately fade.

Ross, Nielson and McGhee ultimately carry a heavy responsibility in this version of The Star-Spangled Girl. When the actors falter, the flaws in Simon’s script seem magnified, and this maiden production stalls. But when they’re clicking, ramping up the camp and going full-bore for the laughs—of which there are many—their individual talents help make one of Simon’s worst plays as good as it can be.

The Star-Spangled Girl continues its run at the Crystal Theatre Thursday, July 6, and Friday, July 7, at 7:30 PM. $5/$7 couples.

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