'Florence' is endearing, but flawed, sitcom

By Bridgette M. Redman

It would be churlish to complain about the down-home goodness of a meal at Bob Evans just because you were expecting gourmet food when you walked through the door.

The Van Buren Street Theater in Bay City flaunts many expectations with their premiere of the original work, "A Cougar Named Florence." The comedy hinges on Florence not behaving in the way society "expects" old people to behave. It's a show that is very good for what it is and has to be taken for that -- a quick-paced, entertaining story played for maximum laughs, but with flaws that could be fixed before the script is performed by others. It's a sitcom style comedy where the laughs come from the one-liners and riotously outlandish behavior.

Florence, played by Judy Harper, is in her 70s and lives with her son and daughter-in-law. The daughter-in-law, Denise, who is played by Jessica Booth--the playwright and director of the show -- claims Florence picked them over Ted's sibling because they lived closer to the Bob Evans. She convinces her husband that his mom needs to start dating because she's going batty and is lonely. Florence, on the other hand, is full of life, even if that life looks rather eccentric. She finds the man her children set her up with to be too old, and instead hooks up with a very young man who works in a bowling alley and takes her to grunge concerts. Boyfriend Brad (William McCartney) is described as being in his 30s, but he looks and acts as though he is in his early 20s.

The story is a classic set-up that is delivered with a great deal of wit and humor. The 40-minute first half is the strongest, with Booth providing the married couple with delightful banter, and the mother with charmingly eccentric antics that endear the audience to her choices. Booth has fantastic comic timing, and the chemistry between her and Mike Asiala (Ted) is authentic. It is the banter where the script excels, especially as the couple struggles with their differences over the live-in aging parent whom they're inclined to treat a bit too much like a child.

Ted recoils from the idea of his mother having sex, a reaction that Denise takes great delight in. They work in Internet references from eHarmony to Craigslist. Booth as playwright deftly weaves in the jokes so that they return multiple times, each with a twist that makes it funnier than the time before.

While the show was short and most of it was very fast-paced, the scene changes took far too long -- especially given that there were no changes to the set or properties. Rather, it was all a wait for costume changes. Transition music provided its own jokes underlining the scene, but much of that was lost on an audience seated together at dinner tables who took the time to converse with the other people they were seated with. It's a natural reaction when sitting in the semi-dark and not at all rude on the part of the audience, but awfully risky for a theater to let the attention of its patrons wander.

The first long wait after the initial short scene in which Florence has a one-sided phone conversation was unnecessary -- except to let people listen to the music. It could have moved immediately to the next scene. The changes after that could have been fixed with quicker costume changes or with the playwright tweaking some of the exits and entrances to allow for more time for the actors to do what they needed to do.

In the second act, character and motivation were often sacrificed to go for the easy laugh. In high farce tradition, there are plenty of slamming doors, misunderstandings and even mistaken identity. It is, in itself, very funny. However, the audience is left wondering why Denise would suddenly care that a visiting minister thinks she is an agnostic and why her attitude toward him is so different from the way she has behaved up to this point. Nor is it likely that a devout Lutheran minister would so easily take God's name in vain as he does in a mostly throwaway line. It's an easy thing to change that can still be equally funny without taking the audience out of the script. Brad storms out in a rather unmotivated move that seems more about providing another slamming door than for any reason the character would have.

Harper creates a delightful Florence that is as sympathetic as she is funny. However, there was one crucial line that she swallowed that made it difficult to understand what happened next. She has a line to Brad that ends a scene and is her explanation for making a major decision. It sounded like she said, "I have a secret vow." That, however, makes no sense within the context of the scene. It is possible that what she says in that line would help the audience understand more about the announcement she makes in the next scene to her children. She also drops a hint about a funeral that she'll be attending some months in the future. That is a reference that is left hanging unsupported. If she is simply being confused or making it up, then there needs to be some hint to the audience that it is just Flo being ditzy again. However, there is also the possibility that Flo is talking about her own funeral. If that is the case, again there needs to be a little more clue given to the audience that Flo has some knowledge of how little time she has left. Perhaps her final line to Brad might have provided that clue. As it is, it feels like a set up for something that is left hanging.

It's also a little surprising how very little Ted and Denise really know Florence despite her having lived with them for several years. Nor do they change and come to a greater understanding as events unfold. They are mostly the same at the end of the play as they are at the beginning.

"A Cougar Named Florence" needs some tweaking or workshopping yet to clean up the second half and perhaps even lengthen it slightly - it currently runs about one hour and 15 minutes - to allow more time to develop Florence's change. That said, it could easily be a very popular script, especially for theaters looking to showcase older actors with a sitcom style comedy appealing to a broad audience.

REVIEW:

'A Cougar Named Florence'

Van Buren Street Theatre, 701 N. Van Buren St., Bay City. 7:30 p.m. Aug. 20. $15. 989-893-9399. http://www.vanburenstreettheatre.com

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