TAMWORTH — The Barnstormers Theatre concludes its 89th season not with an old chestnut but a newer comedy, “Things My Mother Taught Me,” an enjoyable sitcom about love, relationships and family.
When something is referred to as a sitcom it is usually said in a dismissive tone and denotes a lack of depth, but as with anything, there are good and bad sitcoms. After all, sitcom simply means situational comedy and that’s an ideal descriptor for “Things My Mother Taught Me,” which opened Thursday, Aug. 22, with performances through Aug. 31.
“Things My Mother Taught Me,” which was performed last year by M&D Playhouse with middling results, centers around Olivia (Melanie Beck) and Gabe (Jordan Ahnquist), a couple in their late 20s who have been together for several years. They are moving from New York into their first apartment together in Chicago.
Moving day gets off to a bad start when the young couple wedges a chair in the door of their new abode. Things become further complicated when both sets of parents show up and begin imparting their unsolicited wisdom.
Olivia is a neurotic with Gabe seemingly the more stable of the two. He has a Seinfeldian love for cereal and is always ready with a disarming quip, but when disaster strikes, all he wants to do is hide in the bathtub.
The parent characters are largely interchangeable with the mothers being uptight and the fathers more laid back — so much so that when the moving truck goes missing their search leads them straight to a bar.
While the mothers are given a bit shading — Gabe’s mother Lydia (Dee Nelson) is a germaphobe who insists the apartment be thoroughly cleaned before anything is moved in and Olivia’s mother Karen (Donna Sorbello) is skeptical of Olivia’s relationship with Gabe because she married young resulting in divorce — the only notable difference between the fathers is that Olivia’s dad Carter (Jordan Reeves) is fond of phone apps. Like Carter, Gabe’s dad Wyatt (Frank Ridley) is supportive and loving.
Even though the characters are a bit one-dimensional, the dialogue by playwright Katherine DiSavino is so sharp, clever and relatable that it doesn’t really matter much. In fact, the lack of specificity might be by design because it makes it easier for the audience to place themselves into the situation.
It is a good script that is often elevated to greatness by the quality of the performances. Actor Buddy Haardt, a regular Barnstormer performer who was charming this season in “The Man Who Came to Dinner” and “Spider’s Web,” makes his directorial debut.
When both sets of parents arrive, Haardt paces things just right. He builds a sense of comedic mayhem paired with a palpable anxiety associated from meddling parents that rings all too true.
Actors often make great directors because they know exactly what their fellow actors need and want to give the best possible performance. Haardt gives his cast the room to go as big as the want — especially the boisterous Ridley — resulting in several laugh-out-loud moments. At the same time, he also keeps the performances based in reality allowing for quieter and more nuanced beats.
Nelson has a frantic energy for much of the first act — particularly in a scene in which she refuses to let Olivia use the bathroom until the toilet seat is replaced — that she dials back significantly in the second act to have some nice maternal moments.
On the more nuanced side of things is the difficult relationship between Olivia and Karen who doesn’t want her daughter to make the same mistakes she did. Because of this, Olivia doesn’t tell her mother things to avoid a lecture. When certain revelations come to light, it leads to a tender mother-daughter conversation that Beck and Sorbello play well.
Beck is a fine comedic actor who as Olivia brings to mind a less-crass Sarah Silverman in both mannerism and speech patterns. Her high-strung performance plays nicely off Sorbello’s more reserved facade.
Similarly, Beck has a believable chemistry with Ahnquist. Their opposite energies perfectly balance each other. Ahnquist has an easy-going charisma and it is fun watching the character’s seemingly bottomless optimism dissolve away in the second act.
This leads to the play’s funniest scene in which the drunken dads force Gabe to listen to their sage wisdom. The inebriated fathers stumble through their advice snacking the entire time culminating with some hilarious business involving whip cream.
Having now seen two different productions of the play, I can honestly say the scene features some of the funniest food-based comedy I’ve seen on stage. Ridley, Reeves and Ahnquist’s comic timing is impeccable. The scene also works because in addition to being truly uproarious, it is emotionally resonate.
Alongside of the main cast, Andrew Codispoti gives an amusing turn as Max, the Polish super of the building. He’s sort of the Kramer of the show, complete with the catchphrases “Uh oh” and “My English isn’t very good.” Even this character is allowed some nicer dramatic notes. Codispoti is both funny and warm in the role.
Clocking in at around an hour and 40 minutes, “Things My Mother Taught Me” is a fast, fun and sincere romantic comedy that puts a nice button on the waning days of summer.
For more information or tickets, go to barnstormerstheatre.org or call (603) 323-8500.