How could I write a play for my fellow third graders to perform when it would be nearly a decade before I actually saw a play, live onstage? The short answer is television, specifically situation comedies. It is even now the format that any American audience is most likely to know, including audiences for the comedy Skin Deep, now on stage at Redwood Curtain in Eureka.
Those audiences are greeted with Daniel C. Nyiri's impressive set, which nevertheless looks familiar. It's a down-market, outer-borough New York apartment, reproduced with the detail we expect in a movie or TV show set. Some of those details — like the box of Ritz crackers, the Kix cereal on top of the fridge — suggest that despite the vaguely contemporary time in which the play takes place, this is really the sitcom 1950s, but with cell phones and collagen injections.
It's the apartment of Maureen Mulligan (played by Christina Jioras), a plus-size and no longer young woman, who is getting ready for a blind and possibly last chance date with Joe Spinelli (Dmitry Tokarsky), perennially unattached and also middle aged. Maureen's sister Sheila (Susan Abbey) is helping her prepare, with encouragement and makeup. Sheila was the pretty one, though lately obsessed with cosmetic surgery. She's married to an upscale lawyer she's worried is straying, the handsome Squire Whiting (Brad Curtis).
While Brooklyn and Queens no doubt maintain some old ethnic enclaves (though I'd be surprised if there are many Irish parents who still expect one of their daughters to become a nun), this has a very '50s sitcom feel: Irish and Italian Catholics, plus a token WASP, as seen through the comedic and highly verbal prism of predominantly Jewish writers.
All the characters in Jon Lonoff's script for Skin Deep are witty, and the story is sweet and slight, with a single psychological turn that Maureen eventually states directly, in case we missed it while laughing at the jokes. This play really is skin deep.
But skin is important, too. It's where we first feel the world and where we get burned. And there are worse ways to spend an evening than watching a live sitcom, especially with this ensemble of actors. Not only are they individually talented, able to create convincing characters and relationships that have nuances that deepen the play, but they do so by working so well and so truthfully together. Credit for that must also extend to director Cassandra Hesseltine.
Christina Jioras is winning, Brad Curtis brings out elements of his character that might otherwise remain latent in the script, Dmitry Tokarsky is solid and Susan Abbey is funny without losing her character's dignity and humanity. The New York accents are pretty good, too.
There's romance, misunderstanding and a touch of farce in the second act, involving (as farce often does) closed doors hiding someone who shouldn't be there or open doors creating a wrong impression. It's uncynical, moderately fast paced and not long. There's a lot about food, so expect to crave snacks afterwards.
Costumes are by Jenneveve Hood, sound by Jon Turney, props by Laura Rhinehart. Skin Deep continues weekends at Redwood Curtain through May 18.
Also on stage this coming weekend: Proof, the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by David Auburn, is at the Gist Hall Theatre on Thursday, May 2, through Saturday, May 4, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, May 5, at 2 p.m. Produced by the HSU theatre department and directed by Michael Thomas, it features Dakota Dieter, James Read, Kyle Handziak and Queena DeLany. Lynnie Horrigan designed the set, Glen Nagy the sound, James McHugh the lighting and Marissa Menezes the costumes and makeup. It closes Sunday. More information: HSUStage.blogspot.com.
The 1960s musical Hello, Dolly! will be performed at Ferndale Repertory Theatre at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays through May 12. Directed by Justin Takata, with musical direction by Tina Toomata (you say Takata, I say Toomata), choreography by Linda Maxwell and scenic design by Liz Uhazy. it features Rae Robison, Dave Fuller, Erik Standifird, Molly Severdia, Dante Gelormino, Sasha Shay, Lizzie Chapman and Brodie Storey heading a large cast. www.ferndalerep.org.
At 8 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, May 2 and 3, the Arcata Playhouse hosts the physical theatre duo Wonderheads Mask Theater, performing an original piece, Loon. Co-artistic directors Kate Braidwood and Andrew Phoenix are graduates of the Dell'Arte International School, and their signature is larger-than-life masks and puppets billed as "live-action Pixar." Liz Nicholls in the Edmonton Journal described this show as "a simple, classic underdog story, the rediscovery of the sense of possibility. And it's told with beautiful physicality." arcataplayhouse.org.
Then the following weekends, the next batch of Dell'Arte MFAs produce The Mothership: Thesis Festival 2013, at 8 p.m. on Thursdays through Saturdays, May 9 through May 18, in the Carlo Theatre. Summit Fever follows three grotesque clowns as they climb Mount Everest, Because I Love You Most of All is a surreal murder mystery and Room 111 answers the question, "What do you get when you put three outrageous characters in a cramped motel room for eternity with a mysterious potato?" www.dellarte.com.