"Spanky" Sprowles has a new gang of comedy cohorts at Pineville Dinner Theater. They're not altogether different from the old gang. Brett Gentile, who helped jumpstart PDT last year with his onstage exploits in Having a Wonderful Time and My Husband's Wild Desires, is now behind the scenes directing and masterminding the 2008-09 lineup. The missus, Autumn Gentile, has returned to the Park Road stage, where she scored so brilliantly in Murder at the Howard Johnson's and A Bad Year for Tomatoes.
Otherwise, there has been a noteworthy reshuffle of players and playthings. After the first-class buffet, still under the supervision of Cliff Ottinger, we're not seeing leftovers from the corn-fed American dinner theater canon anymore. No, Gentile is starting off his regime with David Ives's All in the Timing -- or at least half of it.
Each table gets a ballot with a rundown of the six playlets that PDT has plucked from the Ives collection, a book that actually contains 14 plays. After premiering singly, mostly at the Punch Line Theatre in Manhattan, five of these plays -- "The Sure Thing," "Words, Words, Words," "The Philadelphia," "Variations on the Death of Trotsky," and "Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread" -- were presented as All in the Timing in 1993, with a debut of "The Universal Language" rounding out the sextet. Gentile has discarded the Glass, a wise choice for a dinner theater crowd, and substituted "English Made Simple" on his menu.
I'm not sure which three titles my table voted for. My only demand was for "The Philadelphia," the sketch I remember most vividly from previous Ives encounters. Deliberations continued in my absence as I caught up with the latest evolution in Ottinger's buffet-land. Newest fauna include pan-fried lamb chops, lemon grass chicken, and petite steak filets topped with taleggio and morel cheese sauce. Tops among the new flora are potato blini with roasted pepper créme fraiche and a killer Mediterranean grits that vies for starch supremacy with Ottinger's masterful smoked gouda gratin.
Back at the table, we learned that the audience's choices for the evening were "The Sure Thing," "The Universal Language," and "English Made Simple." Excellently done, audience! Starting off with "Sure Thing," we immediately saw PDT's most recognizable new recruits, Jeremy DeCarlos and Kim Watson Brooks. With every false step marked by finger snaps -- leading to a rewind or a complete restart -- DeCarlos and Brooks demonstrate the multitudinous obstacles that must be avoided to even begin a promising relationship. The two pros have worked together before, most notably in Gem of the Ocean last winter, so it's gratifying to watch them clicking in comedy.
An even more radical deconstruct of communication occurs in "The Universal Language," calling for even more virtuosic acting and timing. Autumn Gentile is Dawn, a stuttering, credulous wallflower who hopes that learning a truly new language will free her from her lifelong phobia of speaking. She's learning a language nobody has ever heard before from Don, played by newcomer Robert Crozier, a teacher who professes to know only a smattering of English.
Now many of the words of this new language are strange cousins of our own, beginning with "velcro" for "welcome." But a lot of what Crozier must memorize -- and that Gentile must appear to learn -- is total gibberish. "Varta," "klahtoo," "bleeny," and "nikto" anyone? Interwoven with this comedy shtick are two other plot strands, the chemistry between Dawn and Don, and the positive effect the new language actually has on Dawn.
We've probably never seen "English Made Simple" in Charlotte before, and Gentile takes extravagant liberties with it. Instead of an offstage "Loudspeaker Voice" introducing, explicating and even parsing the party patter of Jack and Jill, Gentile brings back DeCarlos in a flaming red huntsman outfit designed by Kristy Morley. Now DeCarlos spouts his textbook speak as Bootsie Sugar "Goode" Foot, an over-the-top cross between Mephisto, Fred Sanford, and James Brown. Newcomer Ricky Watson pairs up with Brooks for all the innocuous chatter and all the abortive attempts at Jack-and-Jill suavity, managing to seem spontaneous amid the many Goodfoot interruptions.
It does require at least two visits to Pineville Dinner Theater to take in all of All in the Timing. Then again, you'll likely need two visits to do the new desserts, bananas foster cheesecake and a wicked pumpkin créme brulee. There was a distinct buzz of interest in the Saturday night crowd that lingered long after desserts were served at the first intermission -- and began tapering off only after the final bows. Could be the sort of buzz that friends and neighbors might wind up hearing. If so, it's fair to say that Sprowles and Gentile have cooked up a winning recipe of their own.