No doubt about it: While Queen City Theatre Company was absent from the local scene, they were missed. Upon entering Duke Energy Theatre, I could see that the place was sold out for the opening night of Peter Ackerman's Things You Shouldn't Say Past Midnight. When the company's shy and retiring managing director, co-founder Kristian Wedolowski, strode forward to perform introductions and bask in the spotlight, the enthusiasm that greeted him was electric.
Wedolowski and artistic director Glenn T. Griffin had thought that their November production of Cock would be their last at Spirit Square — because the title of the British comedy had so irked the folk at Blumenthal Performing Arts, who felt compelled to protect the parishioners of Elevation Church from fowl language. Ironically, Ackerman's confection has more sex, skin and foul language in the opening scene — plus an ethnic slur, for good measure — than Cock came on with all evening long.
Ackerman is not exactly the most celebrated of playwrights, and Past Midnight was premiered off-Broadway way back in 1999, further substantiating that the QC company is the big draw here. But hold on. You don't need to feel like you're belatedly catching up with Ackerman, who went on to co-write Hollywood's Ice Age. DirecTV recently bought up 10 episodes of this sexy dish that Ackerman will base on his play. In a sense, you're getting a preview!
The spiral of complications and outrageous meddling begins when Nancy, in the throes of orgasm, praises/labels/maligns her boyfriend Ben as a "hook-nosed Jew." Though he's not very Jewish, the ecstatic exclamation doesn't go over too well, but in making his point on why Nancy's behavior was unacceptable, Ben commits a faux pas of his own.
Needless to say, Nancy considers Ben's hypothetical example far more significant than what she has done — because she's a woman, because this is a comedy, take your pick. So in the middle of the night, Nancy is off to the apartment of her friend Grace to commiserate and get some good counsel. Great, because Grace has a fabulous gay therapist who won't mind being phoned at three in the morning. Both Grace and her therapist, Mark, have interesting bed partners, so what Nancy hoped would be a girly pillow party of validation gets way out of control.
Directed by Michael Harris, Past Midnight packs two hours worth of laughs into less than 80 minutes, with three couples that play well together. Michelle Fleshman brings enough earnestness and neurosis to Nancy that I frequently wanted to shake some sense into her, yet I kept wishing for the moment when she would finally snap out of it. On the receiving end, Aaron Mize is so cuddlesome and nebbishy in his bewilderment that I couldn't go against anything Ben might wish for.
Grace and Gene are a little more textured, with different tensions hovering between them. In a nice reversal of the usual formula, Grace is the professional pursuing what she thinks is a meaningless affair, reveling in sex and resistant to talking about herself. Gene is her brawny boy toy, but he wants the five-day-old relationship to blossom into intimacy, extract himself from his hit-man rut, learn more about Grace, and maybe go to college. The perfect pair to offer sage advice, right?
The formula is reversed right back when we behold the zaftig Shannon Wightman-Girard as Grace, draped by costume designer Harris in a predatory leopard skin negligee, so it's a marvelously rich performance. For his part, Lamar Wilson doesn't shortchange us on any of Gene's lunch-pail sensitivity, ladling on his soulful, romantic aspirations with an Archie Bunker righteousness.
Sensing her inadequacies as a counselor, particularly since she's in therapy herself, Grace reaches out to her own therapist, Mark, who just happens to be Gene's younger brother — better-educated and more cheerful, flamboyant, kinky and irresistibly incompetent than anyone else onstage. Yup, Alex Gagne turns Mark into a trusted adviser Grace would phone deep into the night, despite brother Gene's misgivings. The tight fluorescent chartreuse briefs certainly set the tone, for he is not the type to quickly pass judgment — except when he does.
We're prepared for Mark's predilection for older men before the lights come up on him, but Mr. Abramson still surprises. Both he and Gene are reluctant to get involved in Nancy's personal life (the fact that she's a total stranger and it's none of his business are briefly factors for Gene), but it would be cruel to reveal the cause of Mr. A's reluctance before John Xenakis shouts it out to you. Nor should I describe the costume Harris has reserved for this comical oldster.
And it really is absurd that Mr. A should be advising Nancy about anything via a conference call at 3:00am. Nonetheless, there's nothing avuncular about the way Xenakis finally chimes in. To say that all three couples live happily ever would be a PG distortion of Ackerman's subtly embedded wisdom — and his wicked preoccupation with orgasm psychology — but you'll likely emerge from Duke Energy happier than you came in, with a healthy urge to check out the upcoming TV adaptation. This QC production is certainly an ideal Past Midnight trailer, and it's encouraging to see the wild enthusiasm welcoming the company back.