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STAGE REVIEW

A pageant satire that wears a bit thin

Amanda Collins (left), Jonathan Fielding, and Brenda Withers in Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater’s production of “Colorado.’’ Amanda Collins (left), Jonathan Fielding, and Brenda Withers in Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater’s production of “Colorado.’’ (Jeff Zinn)
By Louise Kennedy
Globe Staff / June 8, 2010

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WELLFLEET — Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s plays go over the top and then keep going — until the bottom drops out. At times scabrously funny, crude to the point of incredulity, and relentlessly satirical, they would be brilliant if only they were . . . brilliant. That is, if they were as smart and original as their author evidently thinks they are.

Instead, they’re merely clever and mean. And while that can be fun for a while — in a late-night sketch, say, or a high-school cafeteria — over the course of a full-length play it starts to wear a little thin.

Then again, maybe superficial satire and easy laughs are just what you’re looking for after a day at the beach. In that case “Colorado,’’ at the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater’s Harbor Stage, is just the ticket.

Certainly the four actors onstage and their director, Harbor Stage “impresario’’ Brendan Hughes, have as much fun as possible in creating this two-act sketch of Miss Late Teen Colorado and the havoc that erupts in her family when she disappears on the eve of the national contest. As he did last summer, the sharp and stylish director will have his crew of actors (which includes a couple more not seen here) collaborate on all the summer’s offerings at the Harbor Stage, and their obvious ease and rapport with each other onstage gives their comic interactions a pleasingly natural rhythm.

But the play itself is highly unnatural, and deliberately so. Nachtrieb gives us a “typical’’ suburban family pushed to the sharpest extremes. Grace Ackhart, the mom, is a former high-school beauty who, you know, had to marry Ron, a comp-lit major who dreams of living in Cuba but pulls double shifts at the meat-packing plant; son Travis gets picked on at school and fondles himself while watching taped episodes of “The Maury Povich Show.’’

All of them, though, take a back seat to Tracey, the megalomaniac 17-year-old who says she wants to use her Miss Late Teen Colorado crown to change the world because “if I can just change one life, one little insignificant life, I think it will justify the beauty that God has given me.’’ Yes, she’s a monster. Her self-absorption and shallowness are so total that they’re quite amusing, but they also give the witty comic actress Amanda Collins only a single note to play. (And costume designer Carol Sherry, unfortunately, gives her a weirdly understated gown that’s not nearly cheesy-glam enough for the role.)

Brenda Withers, as Grace, pretty much gets just one note, too — fading mom living out her dreams through her daughter — though the revelation that she’s having an affair with “beauty coach’’ Stan adds a hint of spice. As for hubby Ron, Lewis D. Wheeler somehow has to persuade us, with no scriptural support, that this guy really was a comp-lit major and wants to live in Cuba — and, even less plausibly, that Ron and Grace would even have spoken to each other in high school, much less ended up on the wrong end of a shotgun wedding. Wheeler is never less than entertaining to watch, but this character just doesn’t make sense.

That leaves Travis, with his nervous mumble and terrible hair and his dawning sense that he’s gay. It turns out that Tracey tormented him even more than the bullies at school, and he seems to be hiding something . . . how did Tracey vanish, anyway?

“Colorado’’ answers that question with an unexpected twist, one that makes no more (or less) sense than anything else onstage. But Jonathan Fielding’s sweetness as Travis keeps the suspense going longer than it otherwise might; it also provides the only hint of emotional connection to any of these characters or their story.

OK, it’s a farcical satire of American obsessions, from beauty to celebrity to pie — who needs emotional connection? Maybe nobody. But maybe, just maybe, Nachtrieb’s work (of which this is an admittedly early example, predating both the cannibalistic, crass “Hunter Gatherers’’ and the more nuanced, cleverly twisting “boom’’) would get stronger if he went deeper. He could start by picking targets less easy, less obvious, and less overexposed than Maury Povich and teenage beauty queens.

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

COLORADO Play by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb

Directed by: Brendan Hughes. Set, Victor Johnson. Costumes, Carol Sherry. Lights, Bridget K. Doyle. Props, Sarah Beals. Sound, Jess Bauer.

At: Harbor Stage, Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, Wellfleet, through July 3. Tickets, $15-31, 508-349-9428, www.what.org