Don’t Say You’re Harry (Ilion Little Theatre, 2015)

Don't Say You're Harry

Don't Say You're Harry
Few performers in the Mohawk Valley have ever been as funny onstage as Peter Loftus. His specialty is the man boy – obstinately oblivious to conventional modes of logic or propriety. (I missed the connection last year when Loftus directed big, a show about a boy who wakes up as a man – in retrospect, it’s confounding that he wasn’t able to transmute his comedic essence into a cohesive production.) Loftus is physically unvain, with superb comic timing; he can do wonders with practically no material.

Claire Demmer’s Don’t Say You’re Harry isn’t much of a play – the director, George Lyon, telegraphed all of Demmer’s jokes in a brief curtain speech. But when you have Peter Loftus, no material isn’t a problem. The rest of the cast take his lead and develop some delightfully weird characterizations. Jim Revenaugh clearly has a great time as Snake, a jewel thief after a dead woman’s diamonds. He bites off his words, a would-be tough guy whose brain is a few paces behind the action. George Malavasic plays Reverend Waters, who scores a hilarious moment with a nonsensical prayer ritual. Kassandra Harris is Miss Ethel Devonport, grieving sister of the deceased. Harris’ Ethel is a mash-up of Grey Gardens and Hand to God – she’s gothic bohemian with a sock puppet on her arm. I loved every moment she was on stage, but I wished for two things: 1) All of her dialogue should have been given to the puppet; 2) She needs an entire play built around her.

I’m not out of praise yet. Victoria Girmonde is radiant and daffy (in that order) as Mz. Grim. She turns the heads of the characters and the audience with her entrance, in impossibly short skirt and red silk blouse. Then she speaks, a weird breathy singsong that drops at the end of every phrase – it’s a parody of the sexed-up dragon lady. Even the script seems to want her to play a conventional femme fatale, wrapping men around her finger. Girmonde avoids the cliché; she ends up liking the attention so much she forgets about twisting knives and emerges from each new seduction more breathless, intoxicated with pleasure in her own attractiveness. It’s a delicious comic soufflé – the effect would fall if she flattened her lines, tried to play it like Bette Davis, and especially if Girmonde was physically tentative. (She spends the second act with her blouse completely unbuttoned, which would have been awkward for the audience if the actress seemed uncomfortable.) I even laughed at what would ordinarily be a typical amateur theater dodge, when a character was supposed to put his hand on her breast and went a bit high instead. Girmonde seemed to squirm in frustration, as if insisting “no, you idiot, touch me HERE.” Sign me up for Victoria Girmonde’s mailing list – I expect she’s got a lot more where this came from.

Julianne Allen, Shawn Eubele, Jeff Matthews and Margaret Neimayer round out the cast, each joining the fun in turn. George Lyon directs the large group efficiently on the small, elegantly decorated stage. (He tried to apologize for it in his curtain speech, suggesting that the piece might work better in a bigger space. Rubbish.) Most of the dialogue happens when two characters come downstage to advance the intrigue, but all eyes were glued to the comic tomfoolery happening everywhere else. One part of my mind was trying to figure out how to make the play work as-written (tighten up line deliveries, write lighting cues to focus attention on the small groups when they conspire, eliminate the distracting background music) but the other part was enjoying the lunacy. In the end, the playwright seems to give up – the play finishes too quickly, on an obvious gag, and you realize you couldn’t care less. You’re left wanting more of everything the performers created, that wasn’t on the page. (Saturday Night Live is the same way, at its funniest when the cast transcends the script.) If that’s not a great night of theater, I don’t know what is.