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5/10/2024     DRINKING HABITS          CenterStage North


pgm 0510 Drinking Habits.jpg

Farce is a very tricky genre.  It usually involves exaggerated characters behaving badly with wildly hard-to-swallow plot and character elements swirling around our “willing-suspension-of-disbelief.”  A single bad choice by writer, designer, director, or performer, can bring the whole thing crashing to earth as if swallowed by a whirlpool.  But when everything is humming and clicking along, quickly and painlessly, it can explode into a geyser of joy that hides all the flaws and creaky exposition needed to get us there.


Take Tom Smith’s Drinking Habits, which can only be described as a quintessentially little theatre play (translation – community or school productions only).  Despite an embarrassingly short web search, I can find no professional productions or even a date of first publication.  And yet there seems to be a huge store of productions and YouTube videos and other internet crumbs to follow, and there’s even a sequel (Drinking Habits 2: Caught in the Act).


Not that there’s anything wrong with any of that.  Sporting a single set, eight charmingly distinct characters, and enough slammable doors to make any fan of farce moist with joy, Drinking Habits can be – should be – an exercise in comic characterization and a wallow in pure escapist glee.


But I warn you, if you stop to catch your breath, or think about some of the more outrageous plot developments, the whole thing will collapse into a steaming pile of “what were they thinking?”

So, for CenterStage North’s wildly energetic protection, I chose to go with the flow, leave my judgment-tinted glasses in my pocket, and see if it could make me laugh heartily enough to require fresh shorts.  Okay that’s an unfairly high bar for any farce to o’erleap, but this one came close.  Maybe I didn’t laugh as loudly (or as often) as my fellow audience, but I smiled broadly throughout, and my eyerolls were…well, to be honest, my eyerolls simply weren’t anywhere in the county.


Welcome to the convent of Our Sisters of Perpetual Sewing.  Sisters Philomena and Augusta have their hands full, keeping all the cassock and wimple repairs speedy and lasting as well as farming and harvesting all the grapes that go into the convent’s signature grape juice, their main source of livelihood.  Or at least that’s what the sisters want Mother Superior to believe.  (In reality, it’s their wine that is the true “cash cow” for the convent, but Ssssssshhhhhhh – Mother Superior would explode if she knew her sisters were producing that “Devil Water.”)  


Only now, the local Cardinal has decreed that budget cuts must be made, and a convent housing two sisters, a Mother Superior, a priest, and a grounds-keeper may be first on the chopping block. 


A pair of reporters investigating where the local award-winning wine is coming from may make things more confused, as will the rumor of a spy from the diocese, and a new nun who just may be only a novice.


Before long, disguises are in place – in one case, a tall and lanky reporter dresses as a priest, a nun, and a cardinal, and, proving the old adage that “faces are invisible under a wimple,” nobody recognizes him.  Somewhere along the line, orphans find parents, lost childhood friends reunite, wives find husbands thought long dead, siblings reunite, broken relationships are repaired, and Father Chenille may just have to perform weddings rather than his preferred (if somewhat less-than-competent) magic act.


The joys of “letting go” really take over here.  Is it credible that a convent can survive with a population of 5?  Is it credible that a wine-press and bottling enterprise can exist under the nose of a Mother Superior?  Is it credible that all this back story about an orphanage in France will pay off in such a tie-it-all-with-a neat bow manner?  Is it credible that Priests and Nuns can lie and deceive with such practiced ease?  Is it credible that everyone who drinks the wine believes it’s just “great-tasting” grape juice?  No!   None of this is even remotely plausible.  But the more implausible the plot twists become, the more the play tickles the funny bone, the more we Just. Don’t. Care.  Farce has a long history of relying on implausibility to energize plot and desperation, and this script turns improbability into a rapturous treasure!


It really helps that this production sports a cast with exquisite comic “chops,” with split-second timing that leaves us no time to ruminate over the multitude implausibilities, and, even under all the wimples, have beautifully expressive faces that underscore the very real emotional connections and fears and panic – especially the panic!  As the reporters, Nick Crebo and Heather Lamboy are a comic delight, fumbling onto their story even as they fumble to re-establish their relationship (she skipped their wedding to scoop everyone else on a major story).  And when Mr. Crebo dons the habit, he becomes a walking, stuttering sight gag.  As the wine-making sisters, Courtney Willett and Mary Grace Williams, impress with their apparent competence and their willingness to bend the rules and even lie to keep the convent financially afloat.  As the young grounds-keeper George, Chaney Moore has the sort of puppy-dog demeanor and honesty that make us root for his happy ending.  So, of course, he’s the one who has to drink all the “wrong” grape juice.  Diane Dicker is a suitably stern and serious Mother Superior who makes her anti-alcohol (I’m sorry, her anti-al***ol) prejudices actually credible (especially when we learn why), and Steve Pryor has many giddily silly moments as Father Chenille – the worst amateur magician ever.  Filling out the cast is Haley Skinner, as the new recruit who has a few secrets of her own, even if she is not the spy Mother Superior suspects.


Director Jerry Jobe wrangles his cast beautifully, keeping the pace farce-friendly and fast, the doors opening and slamming with split-second timing, and with keeping our vampires of judgment at bay.  Sure, it’s implausible, but it’s also more fun than a wallow in a wine well!


So, Drinking Habits may not be great theatre, but it is good farce.   And when a good farce is done with this much energy and joy, it would be a sin to not just go with the flow and send geysers of laughter to the heavens.




--  Brad Rudy  (   #DrinkingHabits  #CenterStageNorth)


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