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The Chow Must Go On

Show funnier than a heart attack

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A little extra backstage drama was on the menu as the crowd swelled to near-capacity Saturday evening for the latest serving of farce at Pineville Dinner Theater. Between dinner time and the first act of My Husband's Wild Desires Almost Drove Me Mad, P'ville prez Jim "Spanky" Sprowles gave the customary pre-curtain spiel -- a comical canapé in its own right -- and told us that one of the actors had suffered a mild heart attack earlier in the day.

More remarkably, that actor would be onstage. Ignoring medical advice and sound common sense, he had checked out of the hospital in time for the show. By not revealing the name of the intrepid farceur, Spanky added an element of mystery to the occasion.

As the action heated up in Acts 2 and 3, I had to hope that the stricken actor was Christopher Hull, playing the title role. A ball-bearing baron by day, Mr. Griffith and his obliging wife, Olivia, are battling the CEO's embarrassing ED by indulging his wildest fantasies. Mr. G's road map to arousal involves watching Olivia as she is ravished by a hairy brute. If that weren't passive enough, he does his peeping from behind the door of an adjoining room, dressed in drag. You don't do wind sprints in heels.

It's a hapless building superintendent, lured by Olivia into her boudoir, and an incompetent burglar who burn the most calories at Mr. Griffith's behest -- often at gunpoint. Jerry Colbert, who finished creating the world less than three weeks earlier in CPCC's Children of Eden, completes a dubious how-I-spent-my-summer circuit by going from God to burglar to dog at the height of the silliness. After he emerges from hiding.

Brett Gentile, as the super, shoulders the most action, catering first to Olivia's directives -- which eventually include hand-to-hand combat with the burglar -- before switching to her sister Louise's fantasy life. That's when Gentile gets his toughest cardiovascular workout, impersonating Louise's despised husband. Truly super, under the circumstances (which Sprowles revealed to me privately after the performance).

Assuming that they didn't share a morbid interest in discovering when Gentile would suddenly collapse and die, I'd say his co-stars deserve equal plaudits for maintaining their poise, concentration and intensity during the performance.

Hull, who distinguished himself as Rev. Hale in his local debut earlier this year in The Crucible at Theatre Charlotte, excels in another complex role. You never doubt his hard-boiled CEO command, yet Griffith's bluster is not emphasized to the point where you can't believe his performance problems or his eccentricities. Just your basic, cigar-smoking transvestite.

This is about the furthest stretch I've seen for the ordinarily upright and urbane Colbert, a very different burglar when the gun leaves his hand. Colbert delivers hilariously when his doggie duties drop him on all fours: I actually sympathized with the wretch by the end of the evening.

The indefatigable Gentile has quickly become a mainstay on Park Road, where the new Pineville Dinner plans to keep churning out comedy and smoked gouda soufflé every weekend, cycling a new script to the stage every five weeks or so. Last month, Gentile helped the company's successful launch as a bellowing nightmare of a husband/father-in-law in Having a Wonderful Time, capped with a barking drill sergeant coda after all the complications were sorted out.

So the slobbish, boorish artillery in Gentile's comedy arsenal is temporarily shelved. Stamina and a certain nebbishy adorability are necessary this time around as we see the hapless super try, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, to fulfill a shifting smorgasbord of fantasy. Gentile is no less satisfying -- or energetic -- at diminished decibel levels.

Of course, you want Olivia to be sufficiently salacious. With the venerable Polly Adkins wearing the bustier, a French teacher in real life, there's an extra je ne sais quoi to the saucier role playing. If not quite in the first blush of youth, Adkins remains très formidable as a dominatrix, even when she cracks out the whip.

After breaking out of her kindly, long-suffering niche last fall as the madam in The Oldest Profession, Annette Gill continues to astound as Louise. We've seen Gill in a whining mode like this, as Louise bemoans the departure of her wayward husband. But she revs up the pacing as never before, yielding a hysterical payoff when she suddenly trains her bitterness at her sister. Stage director Craig Spradley may have picked up that whip himself to achieve this startling result.

Normally, the obvious response to Pineville Dinner's winning streak of successful comedy-food packages is "come and get it," especially when you factor in the attentive wait staff. With the cardio-questionable Gentile in the combo, I'm amending that to get it while you can.

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