Playmate’s Playhouse

11. February, 2013 Theater No comments

It seems like I’m seeing a lot of self-produced musicals lately. I saw two just this weekend, in fact: Tanya Shaffer’s The Fourth Messenger at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley and Nicholas Weinbach’s Made in China at Bindlestiff Studio in San Francisco. The latter show is produced by Sir Windsorbach Productions, made up of Clinton Winder, DL Soares and Nicholas Weinbach, all three of whom worked on the show. Weinbach, in fact, wrote all the songs and orchestrations, cowrote the script with his brother Brent, and stars in the show as the protagonist, Max. That’s not to be confused with his twin brother Max, who leads the live six-piece orchestra and also appears in the play in an uncredited role.

Nicholas Weinbach and Marisa Gregory in Made in China.

Directed by Nick Dickson, it’s an extremely bare-bones production. The set by Soares and Hannah Barnard-Henke consists of a few doors and a curtain, with a few props brought in for a scene here and there.  There are a surprising amount of costume changes, and the getups by Katy Yost and the cast are bright and fanciful. Hidden behind the curtain, the band plays jazz before the show, including instrumental versions of “The Girl from Ipanema” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” but the music in the show itself isn’t jazzy at all.

With an apparent Sondheim influence, the songs are, in fact, a bit odd. Weinbach’s melodies are pleasant, but the lyrics are rough and rudimentary, a mix of the overly simplistic (with a lot of repetition of exactly what the song is about) and the garbled, as if the demands of the meter outweigh the need for a line to make sense. The arrangements are also on the busy side at times, although some of the quirkier elements—hand claps, whistling choruses—are quite appealing. Some songs are reprised over and over, particularly the opener, “A Letter Written on the Back of Yesterday.”

The show gets off to a rough start with an ensemble number marred by some unharmonious harmony vocals among the women of the cast. Also, a few of the singers—particularly ensemble member Alison Kawa and female lead Marisa Gregory—have trouble making themselves heard over the orchestra and are drowned out by their castmates’ voices, which becomes a real problem in some of the later duets. Weinbach himself is distractingly flat at times, though that at least suits the character he’s playing.

With dry, deadpan humor, Max is an oddball who soon becomes a loveable one. Straightlaced and nebbishy, he’s a proud “up-and-coming postman” in shorts and high socks. Out on a date, he drinks only tap water and complains about the techno music his fun-loving but not terribly geek-friendly date (Gabby Poccia) is clearly into—much to the amusement of the breezy, chatty bartender (Maximiliano Colter). It’s pretty obvious why Max has never kissed a girl, and it’s not for the reason he thinks, that he just has high standards.  “I just want to find a girl I can dance with, and it feels like the early ’60s.” Fortunately he’s in luck, because his dream girl is about to fall into his lap.

Max Weinbach and Nicholas Weinbach in Made in China.

There’s one package on his route that Max can’t deliver because the address doesn’t seem to exist. Rather than returning it to sender like any real postman would do, Max obsesses over it. He rattles the package to find that it must contain a music box, playing a Chinese-sounding tune that he calls “the most beautiful music.” He consults his dismissive, mocking boss (John Lennon Harrison, who only appears once and doesn’t stick around for the curtain call), who tells him he has to “look closer.” (Cue a song, “You Must Deliver the Package/Look Closer.”) Written on the package is an instruction to deliver only between 5 and 6 p.m., and sure enough, the house mysteriously appears at that time, like Brigadoon.

There he finds a lovely and flirtatiously playful young woman in a slip who invites him in to play—and play and play and play. If that sounds saucy, it shouldn’t, because her house is full of toys and games, and all she does is play all day. “Games are pretty much my life here,” she says. “No worries, no responsibilities. It’s pretty perfect.” Or, as she sings, “What Can Be Better Than This?”

Marisa Gregory is terribly charming as Amber, bright and cheery, with graceful and blithely sensuous movements when she dances, though she’s also worrisomely juvenile and pliant. Gregory does a good job of capturing the underlying conflictedness and resentment in a character who otherwise doesn’t seem to have a lot of agency for herself.

Amber is very much an example of the “manic pixie dream girl” trope—the girlish eccentric beauty who swoops in to draw the withdrawn male protagonist out of shell. The funny thing is, when I reviewed the play by that name recently, I made the point that there are only so many ways that kind of story can end, and I’ve seen ’em all before. And when I listed the possible endings (not in the review, but in conversation with my friend after that show), the end of Made in China was one of the classic twists I rattled off.

Gabby Poccia, Katy Yost, Nicholas Weinbach, Alison Kawa and Maximiliano Colter in Made in China.

At first it seems like she lives alone, but she talks to and about her dolls as if they’re alive, and lo and behold, then they are. Collectively called the Cronos (song: “We are the Cronos”), Larry, Gary, Harry and Mary (their genders the opposite of their names) are like manic hipster clowns with brightly colored Raggedy Ann hair and berets, speaking in a kind of hipster jive. Katy Yost’s swaggering Gary is their apparent leader, egging Max on to come live with Amber and be her love.

No matter how much time Max seems to spend there, when he looks at his watch practically no time seems to have passed. The same can’t be said of the audience, however, because the show’s pretty slow-moving, especially in the house when they’re miming playing games and singing about feelings and deliberation. (The song titles say it all: “Playtime,” “Falling in Love with Her,” “Think of Imagination,” “Moments,” Caught in Those Reveries.” In one of them Max actually sings, “Decision, decision, decision, decision.”) These pastimes play out in simple but fanciful dances choreographed by Alexandra Dailey that are entertaining to watch, but the endless playtime gets monotonous pretty quick, no matter how charming the company, and you can see how a guy with an up-and-coming career as a postman would get restless after a while.  What keeps it entertaining is that both Max and Amber are appealing characters in nearly opposite ways—she flighty and quirky, he serious and earnest.

As creepy and off-putting as it is that his dream girl is so childlike and at times such a passive object—something that Max at least seems to recognize on some level is problematic, although it’s always cast more in terms of his needs than hers—there’s a lot about the play that’s awfully amusing, including a lot of humorous dialogue. Especially entertaining are the inventive idiosyncrasies of speech: Max has a habit of saying “shnip” as if it were cussing, and Amber says, “Are you Cyrio de Berge?” instead of “Are you serious?” Brother Max’s cameo is particularly hilarious. The songs are pleasant too, especially some of the simplest ditties that Max sings: “A Song That They Call Love,” “Amber.” It’s just that others are so musically meandering and lyrically banal, and there are so darn many of them, that after two and a half hours you’re real ready for Max to find his way out of Amber’s dream house.

Made in China
Sir Windsorbach Productions
Through February 23
Bindlestiff Studio
185 6th Street
San Francisco, CA

Show #13 of 2013, attended February 8.


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