Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sour Cherry

There was a bluebird in her heart, but it laid an egg. Jackie McCoy and Chris Graham in Cherry Smoke.

Mediocre playwrights everywhere, take heart! James McManus's Cherry Smoke is here, to prove beyond a doubt that you can write a convoluted, derivative piece of pulp and still win a prize and get the damn thing mounted all over the country - and even the globe (it's been done in Australia). Okay, there are dumb theatres and development departments everywhere - but how, exactly, could the smart folks at the Gurnet Theatre Project have fallen for this turkey? I've no idea, but they do serve the bird up with enough sizzle to almost sell it. Which is some sort of accomplishment, I suppose; so here's to bad choices, done pretty well.

Okay, I know what you're thinking: "Tom, you're just being mean again." And maybe I am - but this play made me that way, I'm afraid. For the record, Cherry Smoke is a dense, impacted kind of pulp-noir thing about gonzo street fighter "Fish," and his damaged main squeeze, Cherry; think Tarantino without the brains, and you're close to Cherry Smoke. Or think about that crazy-bad play you wrote when you were 19 and had your first scorching affair with some hottie you knew it would never work out with. Your love was beautiful, and it couldn't last, and you wanted to tell the world! Later, when you read the script, you chuckled. rolled your eyes, and threw it away. Well, James McManus didn't do that part.

Okay, back to Cherry and Fish. These sexy losers live on the wrong side of the tracks - actually, off the grid - and we can tell it's only a matter of time before dumb, doomed Fish beats up, or even kills, dumb, doomed Cherry, even though he loves her. That's the whole plot right there, although playwright McManus tries to disguise his lack of development with all kinds of flashes, both back and forward, to scramble the clich├ęd plot points he checks off like so many boxes on an "Intro to Playwriting" quiz. And then there's the dialogue. "I ain't much good at lovin'," Fish actually says at one point, while Cherry is prone to heartbreaking attempts at 'poetry' like "There was a bluebird in my heart, but it flew away, baby." Seriously, this thing needs a laugh track.

So kudos to Jackie McCoy, who plays Cherry, for actually saying that boner without LOL-ing. And the bad lines don't stop; McManus is kind of like that oil well in the Gulf - he keeps spewing tar balls of bad metaphor onto the stage. Still, McCoy gives it her all, although since her energy lacks an arc and is kind of superficial throughout, her "all" doesn't get her that far in the end. Newcomer Chris Graham, who's the big news of the production, gets further, due to his good looks (they're even better when his shirt's off), truly believable fighting chops, and smart actor instincts. What he doesn't have yet is the one thing McCoy lacks, too - some sort of genuinely broken tenderness, you know, "deep inside," that might tease us into getting interested in these two as they circle the drain. Still, I don't need a crystal ball to predict that Mr. Graham should cut a wide swath through Boston's leading-man auditions.

As the somewhat-more-together sidekicks to these two freaks, Chelsea Schmidt and Joe Ruscio do what they can with thankless parts, and Ruscio actually makes a few scenes his own. Meanwhile director Brett Marks never takes his foot off the gas (thank you, thank you), and fight director Angie Jepson deserves praise for the convincing boxing scenes, even if most of them are of the "shadow" variety.

But still - why, why, WHY? This is a more tragic question than anything pondered in Cherry Smoke. Since I thought Gurnet Theatre Project was one the sharpest fringe shops in town, I was quite dismayed by this production. Still, the company is currently also gearing up for The Tempest at the Myles Standish Monument in Duxbury - and that's a somewhat better play, or so I've heard. Don't let this misstep keep you away from this usually-deserving little troupe.