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STAGE REVIEW

Laughs drive this ‘Trailer Park’

Leigh Barrett and David Benoit star in SpeakEasy Stage Company’s “The Great American Trailer Park Musical.’’ Leigh Barrett and David Benoit star in SpeakEasy Stage Company’s “The Great American Trailer Park Musical.’’ (Mark L. Saperstein)
By Louise Kennedy
Globe Staff / May 4, 2010

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Sometimes a single finely crafted line is enough to convey a show’s every narrative and thematic nuance. Take this one, spoken by a “talk-show hostess’’ in the current SpeakEasy Stage Company production:

“Today’s topic: Strippers on the Run Who Sleep With Married Men Who Live in the Same Trailer Park and the Agoraphobic, Troubled Trailer Housewives Who Love Them.’’

OK, so maybe “nuance’’ isn’t the right word. But really, what more do you need to know? Except this: “The Great American Trailer Park Musical,’’ now making its local debut at the Boston Center for the Arts, is 100 minutes of rowdy, silly, laugh-out-loud fun, with a tiny touch of sugar and a hint of genuine, unexpected insight into trailer-park life.

Director Paul Daigneault and his ace team know just what to do with creators David Nehls and Betsy Kelso’s inspired ridiculousness: Run with it, baby. Put some plastic flamingos in front of the trailers, tease up the hair, strike up the band, and let the absurdity roll. What’s particularly entertaining, though, is that no one — onstage or behind the scenes — ever pushes it too far. Light social satire needs a light touch, and that’s exactly what it gets here.

Like those flamingos. Set designer Jenna McFarland Lord uses only a couple, not a dozen, and she sticks them casually into the cinderblocks that hold up the trailer at center stage; they’re just one bit of the scenery, not a heavily underscored kitsch signifier, and the offhand approach makes them funny again. Seth Bodie’s costumes, too, start out fairly straight — Walmart couture, lots of capri jeans and loud shirts — then get gradually crazier, but never to the point of taking over the show. If there’s such a thing as refined excess, this “Trailer Park’’ has it.

It also has a truly amazing cast. Leigh Barrett stars as Jeannie Garstecki, the agoraphobic housewife who, indeed, hasn’t left her trailer in 20 years, ever since her son was kidnapped while she was sobbing hysterically over a really bad perm. (It’s unclear whether the curls or the kidnapping drove her indoors.) Opposite her, local boy turned Broadway baby David Benoit plays Norbert, her lunkish but adoring husband, who finally succumbs to the temptations of their new neighbor, a stripper named Pippi.

In these expert hands, both Norbert and Jeannie project real human warmth amid all the silliness; Benoit and Barrett both know how to play extreme comedy without losing the connection to genuine emotion that makes it even funnier. A flashback scene, in which we see the mullet-and-headband-sporting pair meet cute over geometry homework, is a marvel of silly sweetness.

They’re surrounded by an equally smart bunch of players, several of them relatively new to the local scene. Caitlin Crosbie Doonan blends sass and vulnerability as Pippi, while recent Emerson College graduate Grant MacDermott is both hilarious and a little scary as her gun-totin’, Magic-Marker-sniffin’ ex.

Even more remarkable, an undergraduate — at Boston Conservatory — provides some of the show’s funniest moments. Junior Santina Umbach plays Pickles (a dim but sweet young thing who got her nickname because she’s always hysterically pregnant) with the kind of wide-eyed naivete that only a very intelligent performer can pull off. Her comic timing, charm, and ability to sing delightfully and stay in character at the same time make her a real winner.

But Pickles is just one of the three “Girls’’ who form a sort of low-rent Greek chorus for the show — and the other two are played by two of Boston’s best comic singers, Kerry A. Dowling and Mary Callanan. Callanan plays Lin, who keeps turning her neighbors’ lights on so the state pen won’t have enough power to send her husband to the chair, while Dowling is Betty, the wisecracking, all-knowing owner of the trailer park (and, in a dream sequence, the talk-show hostess who narrates Jeannie’s worst nightmare).

Together, the three of them dance and joke and sing, fearlessly and flawlessly, through the whole show. If they’re having as much fun doing it as we are watching them, this must be the greatest gig in town.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

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THE GREAT AMERICAN TRAILER PARK MUSICAL Music and lyrics by David Nehls, book by Betsy Kelso

Directed by: Paul Daigneault. Music direction, Nicholas Connell. Choreography, David Connolly. Set, Jenna McFarland Lord. Costumes, Seth Bodie. Lights, Karen Perlow. Sound, Aaron Mack. Presented by: SpeakEasy Stage Company.

At: Roberts Studio Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, through May 30. Tickets, $30-$54, 617-933-8600, www.bostontheatrescene.com