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The All-American Diner/Table Manners 

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THE ALL-AMERICAN DINER

Talisman Theatre
at Chicago Dramatists Workshop

Joe Urbanik's The All-American Diner is one of those plays that must have looked great on paper: three long-separated siblings reunite in their hometown "somewhere in Illinois" to fight over whether they should sell the family restaurant. A nice, clear conflict--"You must sell!" "I won't!"--with plenty of opportunities to expose the deeper conflicts of this contemporary family squabble: "Mom was crazy!" "Grandma wanted us all to have a share in the business!" "No she didn't!" "Yes she did!" And for those who like a pinch of allegory, Urbanik has called the restaurant the All-American Diner.

All the elements for a well-made play, yet the work feels forced and unreal. We never really believe that Dave, Carol, and Alex Valli are anything but characters in a play. Nor does the All-American Diner feel like anything but the stock setting for yet another bit of bogus small-town Americana.

This air of unreality is only accentuated by Michael Johannsen's incredible diner re-creation, which gets everything right, down to the shiny chrome coffee machines, the polished Formica counters, and the red Naugahyde booths, but still looks more like a museum exhibit--American diner, circa 1950--than a working restaurant.

The problem is that Urbanik doesn't have enough of a story to justify two acts. So he fills out his play with plenty of quirky family stories and eccentric character traits. We learn that Grandma was a world traveler who liked to visit countries in alphabetical order, that Mom was a compulsive letter writer who eventually committed suicide, and that Alex, who runs the All-American Diner, puts a toothpick with a tiny American flag on every sandwich he makes.

Such touches can go a long way toward making characters charming and real. Lanford Wilson, for example, peppers The Fifth of July with them. But Urbanik's details inevitably ring false, as if they'd been lifted not from observed life but from TV commercials and Hollywood movies. Certainly his spanking new, never greasy, always quaint restaurant belongs in this world.

So do director Mark Hardiman's actors, who match Urbanik cliche for cliche, bogus moment for bogus moment. When Carol, a fairly sensible and grounded woman, is required to suddenly crack conveniently near intermission and admit that she did indeed have a nervous breakdown, Mary Hatch delivers one of those sudden, unmotivated, hysterical scenes you normally see only in acting class. And when the time comes, at the play's utterly unbelievable climax, for Dave and Alex to indulge in lots of unrestrained emoting, David Mitchell Ghilardi and Dean R. Schmitt snort and bellow to beat the band.

None of this cast's arch overacting seems out of place in Urbanik's hollow play. But I've seen both Hatch and Schmitt do better work elsewhere, most notably in Talisman's terrific production of As You Like It last season. It's a shame that they and Ghilardi don't have a worthy vessel for their talents.

TABLE MANNERS

Temporary Theatre Company
at Mayfair United Methodist Church

Say, Alan Ayckbourn's Table Manners. God knows, no one at the Temporary Theatre seems to know what to do with this wonderful script. Performing in the basement of a church, on a theater-in-the-round stage that guarantees that no matter where you sit you won't see all the action, this merely adequate cast flattens out Ayckbourn's comedy, turning howlers into wry smiles and knee-slappers into knowing nods.

Which is a shame, because Ayckbourn, with his keen eye for telling character traits and equally keen ear for character-driven dialogue, can be very funny. This is most certainly true of Table Manners, described by Ayckbourn as the "most robust . . . and overtly funny" of his trilogy of comedies "The Norman Conquests."

The play examines the comic ramifications of Norman's seduction of the mousy sister of his shrewish wife Ruth. Unfortunately director Rodney Higginbotham seems obsessed with having all the middle-class Brits inhabiting this play speak with British accents. As a result the mostly American cast work so hard to keep their accents right they forget there's more to delivering a comic line than speaking it.

This is particularly true of Allyson Metcalf's painfully correct performance as the stiff-spined, domineering sister-in-law Sarah, which lacks much of the verve and bite that made her so memorable in Rage!!! Or, I'll Be Home for Christmas. In contrast, Stephanie Manglaras proves quite funny and likable as the lovesick sister, Annie, despite (or maybe because of) her inability to keep her accent going. In fact, of this six-member cast only Tim Philbin, as the delightfully balmy brother Reg, proves capable of both keeping his accent and playing the comedy inherent in his character.

The result is that the production lacks texture, tension, and forward dramatic motion. One scene just follows another, with the breakfast scene feeling a lot like the dinner scenes that precede and follow it.

These characters are supposed to be going through incredible changes. Norman discovers his wife doesn't care that he's slept with Annie. Tom, Annie's lukewarm suitor, discovers the depth of his feelings for her. Annie finds herself torn between two lovers. But you'd never know that they feel anything more than mild annoyance at the turmoil that surrounds them. And that's deadly in a farce.

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