By Shelley A. Sackett
Latham (Robert Walsh) closes in on Lexi (Esme Allen).
All photos by Gary Ng
If the purpose of theater is to entertain, Israel Horovitz has hit the nail squarely on the head in Gloucester Stage’s New England premiere of his latest Gloucester-based play, “Gloucester Blue”. The founding artistic director of Gloucester Stage, who directs this production, introduced his new play last Saturday evening to a packed house that greeted him with affection and applause.
“Let’s see how you feel after the play,” he said, chuckling.
The internationally honored and acclaimed playwright need not have worried. His black comedy with more twists and turns than Route 127 left the audience cheering amid thunderous clapping.
In a nutshell, a young super wealthy couple (Lexi Carrington and Bradford Ellis IV, aka “Bummy”) is restoring an abandoned former fishing cannery in Gloucester’s Fort area as their summer home and display space for their collection of antique cars. They hire local housepainter, Stumpy, to do the renovation. He in turn hires a friend-of-a-friend, Latham, when the couple wants the house in move-in condition earlier than they originally planned. Both workmen are from solid blue-collar backgrounds and grew up in the working waterfront neighborhood of Eastern Point.
The play opens with Stumpy (Francisco Solorzano) and Latham (the electrifying Robert Walsh, whose performance is worth the price of admission) in the drop cloth-draped attic loft where they get to know each other as they plaster and spackle. Although they are kindred souls geographically, their spirits are anything but.
Stumpy favors National Public Radio and Latham, at least ten years his senior, is an Aerosmith devotee. In one of dozens of laugh-out-loud moments, Latham says, “NPR can make ice cream sound depressing.” First impressions prove deceiving throughout “Gloucester Blue”, and Latham’s unrefined patter belies a keen sense of observation and a razor sharp sense of self-preservation.
The boisterous banter changes the instant Lexi (played by Esme Allen with a perfect, nasal Brahmin clenched jaw) shows up with paint samples. She is a knockout blond patrician clad head to heel in clothes that cost more than Latham and Stumpy’s week’s paychecks combined. From the get go, it is clear there is more than an employer-employee between her and Stumpy.
As Lexi complains to Stumpy about being sexually harassed earlier in the week, Latham relishes insulting Lexi as he mocks Stumpy. “I remember when harass was two words,” he says, clearly enjoying watching them squirm. Stumpy and Lexi get the upper hand when they ignore Latham and dash into the bedroom to “discuss renovation details.”
Latham continues to work, doing a slow burn that glows hotter with each passing minute. When Lexi’s husband, Bummy (played as a defeatist milquetoast by Lewis D. Wheeler) arrives, you can almost smell Latham’s scheming brain start to work overtime.
In addition to adultery, the noir-ish play brings in humor, a choreographed fight, blackmail, murder and betrayal. The plot coils and curls as secrets are spilled and transformed into lies and mayhem.
The first half of the first act drags a bit as Stumpy and Latham establish their characters and stake their ground. Part of the problem is Solorzano’s flat and un-nuanced performance as Stumpy. Fortunately, Walsh is up to the task of taking up the slack. He brings physicality, impeccable timing and a believable delivery to Latham. Likewise, the choreographed fight between the two Gloucester workmen overstays its welcome.
Act two is another story, meandering into ridiculous plot twists and comedic staging. At times, it feels like we have wandered into a completely different play, one that resembles “Fractured Fairy Tales” form the “Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” more than a philosophical observation of class warfare between the 99- and 1-percenters.
“Gloucester Blue” is full of introspection, clever dialogue and inventive story lines. Most importantly, however, it is exceptionally entertaining. No doubt, its run in its home town will be as rousting a success as its previous runs in theaters in New York, Washington and Florida.
“Gloucester Blue” runs through October 3 at Gloucester Stage Company, 267 E. Main St., Gloucester, Wednesday through Sunday. Following the 2 p.m. performances Sunday, Sept. 20 and 27, audiences are invited to free post show discussions with the artists. For tickets go to gloucesterstage.com or call 978-281-4433.