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Stage Review

Gossipy golden girls get a stage

From left: Sheriden Thomas, Ellen Colton, and Cheryl McMahon play the bantering older ladies in Jack Neary's 'The Porch.' From left: Sheriden Thomas, Ellen Colton, and Cheryl McMahon play the bantering older ladies in Jack Neary's "The Porch." (Paul Lyden)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Terry Byrne
Globe Correspondent / May 20, 2008

Enduring friendships, shared tragedies. Playwright Jack Neary mines what is near and dear to us in his latest take on his "golden girls" characters in a play called "The Porch," now making its debut at the Stoneham Theatre.

What began as a series of short plays, in which a trio of elderly ladies hilariously parse topics of sex, impotency, and death with wide-eyed surprise, expanded into "Beyond Belief" when Neary added two husbands and a timely dramatic twist. With some rewriting, including toning down some of the Catholic humor, the same basic structure of "Beyond Belief" has evolved into the latest adventures on "The Porch."

Neary's ear for comic banter is especially sharp, and the audience at a weekend performance at Stoneham Theatre laughed uproariously at recognizable references to long marriages and family dynamics. But some of his once-timely references, to events like the Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky and the Catholic priest pedophile scandals, feel a bit moldy now. Neary also tends to string out his jokes long after the punch line's been hit, and although he's crafted the semblance of a dramatic arc, the play still feels like a series of 10-minute vignettes haphazardly strung together.

The true engines that drive this play are the performers. Ellen Colton and Cheryl McMahon, who've been playing two of the porch ladies since the first short play bowed at the Boston Theater Marathon, have honed these girls to a razor's edge. Colton has a mischievous twinkle in her eye even when she's playing the dumb bunny Alma, who thought "homosexuals" were "homeless-sexuals." When she chronicles the tragedy she's had to live with for years, she delivers her speech with much more poignancy than Neary has written.

McMahon's fussy Marjorie purses her lips and looks down her glasses at precisely the right moments as she tries to play peacemaker and nonjudgmental friend no matter what. She and Richard Snee, who plays her husband, Pat, are remarkably comfortable together, making it easy to believe their long-term marriage. The third porch lady is Sheriden Thomas, a newcomer to Boston stages but an experienced actress who gives the know-it-all Gert a lot of attitude and an unexpected edge.

John Davin and Snee play the put-upon husbands with unexpected joy. Snee, easily Boston's most gifted comic actor, makes light work of some of Neary's strung-out tales with his slow double take, roll of the eyes, or perfectly timed pause. Davin plays Gert's husband, Leo, with manic energy that is a perfect complement to Snee's low-key delivery.

Jenna McFarland Lord's front porch set and David Wilson's lighting design are impressively realistic, while Seth Bodie's costumes for the porch ladies are embarrassingly garish, including hideous sweatshirts for Marjorie and a purple track suit for Gert ("If I ever put on anything like that, shoot me," my companion said with a groan). But the most charming production element is Jamie Whoolery's sound design, musical snippets from Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Durante, and even Mitch Miller, that offered the perfect punctuation and transition between scenes.

Without a coherent story line to pull everything together, "The Porch" does not add up to a full evening of either comedy or drama. Despite some inspired performances, Neary's unwillingness to go beyond the surface leaves us wondering why we're standing out on "The Porch."

The Porch

Play by Jack Neary

Directed by Neary. Set, Jenna McFarland Lord. Costumes, Seth Bodie. Lighting, David Wilson. Sound, Jamie Whoolery.

At Stoneham Theatre through June 1. Tickets: $16-$40. 781-279-2200, stonehamtheatre.org.

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