In terms of programming, few companies are as community-minded as Philadelphia Theatre Workshop, a small company dedicated to developing and producing new work from local playwrights. Continuing their mission, PTW opens their 2010-11 season with the world premiere of Kathy Anderson’s disappointing comedy Front Row Seat.
In 1963, the Flannery family sets out on a road trip from their small Texas town to Dallas to see the parade in honor of President Kennedy and the First Lady. The audience is aware that the Presidential visit will end in tragedy, but first the Flannerys have to get to Dallas, and the more light-hearted, National Lampoon-esque disasters they encounter on the way is where the hilarity’s clearly supposed to ensue. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
Road trips are a staple in film (Thelma and Louise, Little Miss Sunshine, Easy Rider, etc.), but you’ll notice that these movies often cut away to extreme long shots of sweeping vistas and miles of blacktop as a T-bird convertible, VW van or Harley chopper zooms off to the horizon, evoking a sense of destination and forward motion that’s hard to capture onstage.
Director Bill Felty is clever about doing the best he can without vehicles or a horizon. The actors are onstage for all of the play’s 90 minutes, and the feeling of being confined with a set group of people for a set period of time is pretty on the nose if you’ve ever been stuck in the back of a family station wagon for more than a couple of hours. When they aren’t in some sort of vehicle, represented by arrangements of chairs, the actors go whizzing about the stage, creating an almost-constant sense of movement as they interact with Stephen Hungerford’s scenic design.
Running along the sides and back of the stage, Hungerford’s design is more a collection of knick-knacks—an old rocking horse, a pay telephone and a sign reading “Dry Gulch Saloon,” among other items—than a conventional set, and it at least vaguely evokes an atmosphere of 1960s Texas. But with just that plus a white line down the center of the stage signifying the road, we get little sense of the sights and sounds the Flannerys encounter on their trip across the Lone Star State. Some well-conceived video design would be a welcome addition, but Felty seems to want to keep things simple.
The main problem with Front Row Seat, though, is Anderson’s script. The plot is poorly managed and often has a feeling of gritted-teeth insistence that this is really funny, dammit. There’s far too many bits that fall flat, then make it worse by stolidly refusing to give up the fight, including a long physical gag involving an unmanageable girdle and an equally tedious and unfunny argument about whether they are “borrowing” or “stealing” an unattended car.
The characters in Front Row aren’t an especially interesting bunch. The father, Billy (a likeable Peter Zielinski), is so enamored with President Kennedy that for him, the trip is practically a religious pilgrimage. Kennedy’s charisma has him completely sold on the idea of the White House as a new Camelot. Billy’s wife Franny (Janine White) isn’t as excited—in fact, she hates the idea of the trip. She’s far more comfortable at home, in the small Texas town where she and Billy conceived their daughter on the night of the junior prom. A nervous, insecure desperately needy woman, Franny sees danger around every bend in the road—and carries a hammer in her purse in case of trouble.
In the backseat are the couple’s daughter Perdita (Kelly DelDuca), a stereotype of the teenage years who spends most of the trip listening to headphones and screaming clichés like “If I don’t have the music on I can’t stand my life!” and Franny’s mother, Inez (Susan Moses). She seems closer to her son-in-law than her daughter, as Inez and Billy share a yearning for adventure that Franny completely lacks. Inez views men as suffering the burden of manhood—“They work and work and then they die”—and frequently chastises her daughter for the demands she places on Billy.
In addition to the family, Anderson supplies a gaggle of oddball characters portrayed by the cast’s remaining three members. There’s a homicidal evangelical (Greg Bell) who twice gives Billy a ride, first in a stolen car and later in a “pretend” cab; a strangely quiet gas station attendant (Matt Dell’Olio), a pair of Kennedy onlookers (Dell’Olio and the reliable Amy Acchione) and a lesbian truck driver (also Acchione) who makes a pass at clueless Franny in the play’s only amusing scene.
Anderson concludes her play with an epilogue of sorts, which is both sentimental and unsatisfying. What, if anything, Anderson has to say about either family relationships, history, or America remains uncertain. As nice as it would be to celebrate a great new play by a Philly playwright, in this case we leave the theater with the impression that we’ve been on a long road to nowhere.
Through Dec. 12. $15-$18. Walnut Street Theatre, Studio 5, 825 Walnut St. philadelphiatheatreworkshop.org
Calendar: Sept. 30-Oct. 7