Politicians and the media forever hold up small towns as emblems of American values, as if moral authority goes up whenever a township's population size goes down. It's as though, away from the traffic and tumult of city life, people have more freedom to behave well, which seems like an optimistic view of human nature.
Two current stage comedies, both of which happen to be set in New England, take opposite views on the nature of life in small towns. At Horizon Theatre, Almost, Maine takes a whimsical, bittersweet look at love in the eponymous hamlet, while Invasion: Our Town at Dad's Garage presents a pointed caricature of Grover's Corners, N.H., the setting of Thornton Wilder's classic Our Town. In the amusing shows, Almost, Maine shows how love brings the citizens together, while Invasion: Our Town discovers darker impulses that split them apart.
An unincorporated community rather than a "real" town, Almost, Maine, could be a sister city to Cecily, Alaska, the similarly quirky, wintry setting of CBS' comedy "Northern Exposure." The evening presents an active night for the northern lights, beneath which we follow nine couples, from strangers to friends to unhappy spouses, who discover new feelings about each other.
Playwright John Cariani reveals an eccentric fondness for clichés that turn literal, such as the fix-it man (Jason MacDonald) who discovers on his lawn a woman (Shelby Hofer) carrying her "broken heart" in a plastic bag. Sometimes, the twist is too self-conscious and cutesy, such as the guy (Chad Martin) who repeatedly trips when he "falls" in love, or when the "other shoe" literally drops for a bickering pair (MacDonald and Lala Cochran). Other times, it's more inventive. When one peevish woman (Hofer) tells her boyfriend they should give back all the love they gave each other, the "love" is made manifest by big laundry sacks colored Valentine-red.
Director Jeff Adler and the four actors keep the characters and action from becoming too broad and cartoonish, so Almost, however trifling, feels more mature than sketch comedy. The play frequently reveals the warmth and surprising quality of David Ives, but without the same level of comedic invention.
Playwright Travis Sharp combined cleverness with a protective attitude toward small-town life in Lawrenceburg, a merry mash-up of Star Wars, "The Dukes of Hazzard" and Wal-Mart that had its premiere last year at Dad's Garage. With Invasion: Our Town, Sharp takes on a literary icon in Wilder's play, a mainstay of high school American lit classes.
As the narrating stage manager, Tommy Futch brings a deadpan delivery worthy of Stephen Colbert for an initially gentle, straight-faced tweak of Wilder's play, closely following Wilder's original scenes of love, death and everyday living in Grover's Corners. When Doc Gibbs (Matt Myers) returns from delivering babies, his family bellows hilariously at each other to keep quiet so he can sleep.
Neither the citizens nor, to a certain extent, the actors realize that a stranger soon will disrupt Grover's Corners. Every production of Invasion: Our Town features a different, unscripted "invader" who barges in and turns the action upside down, and neither the cast nor the audience knows who it'll be, although either campy celebrities or recurring characters from the playhouse's other improv shows seem the most likely.
On opening night, improviser Z. Gillispie intruded as Professor Oral Hanks, a boorish patent-medicine salesman whose ointments and tinctures wreaked havoc. Young George Gibbs (director Scott Warren, an opening-night substitute for Tim Stoltenberg) misused a love potion on everyone from girl-next-door Emily (Amber Nash) to his father (Myers), who began showering him with inappropriate affection.
Our Town presents such an iconic vision of Americana and such a familiar script that, in a sense, it's like the perfect straight man. Apparently, only a relatively minor catalyst can throw the whole plot out of whack and expose the seamy underbelly. Part of the humor comes from the cast's creative efforts to keep the plot and dialogue close to Wilder's original while incorporating bizarre changes. "Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?" Emily wonders at the end. "Zombies," the stage manager replies in an exchange that neatly combines Wilder's themes with the insane additions from opening night.
Invasion: Our Town proves reminiscent of Dad's improvised soap opera "Scandal!" in ways both impressive and frustrating. Some humorous notions fall perfectly into place, while others go on seemingly forever without payoff, despite the cast's off-the-cuff deftness. Each performance will be different, but audiences should expect Invasion to offer more laughs than duds and a generally pleasing send-up of Grover's Corners, which will turn out to be less sleepy and wholesome than Thornton Wilder imagined.
Real American villages may not be susceptible to the influence of, say, Haitian zombie powder, but it's more satisfying to glimpse a town's potential for mischief, rather than simply see the sunny side of Main Street.